February is designated as “Black History Month” and celebrates a population of individuals that share a unique and important heritage. History has not always been kind to African Americans and, as with other minority groups, has left out important contributions by its members.

Black History Month, also called African American History Month, began because of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who researched contributions and accomplishments of African-American individuals, largely missing in history books; in fact, the only person recognized to the culture of the United States was George Washington Carver (1864-1943), an agricultural chemist whose development of products derived from peanuts revolutionized the South’s agricultural economy.

Woodson began writing black history and inserting it into the relevant pages of history. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, since changed to the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In 1926, Woodson initiated Negro History Week as a way to highlight the accomplishments of black people in American History.

Black History Month was initially celebrated the second week of February to correlate with the birthdays of two men who have made significant contributions to the history of African Americans: President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The bicentennial of the United States in 1976 motivated the Legislature to designate the entire month of February as a time for celebrating black history.

On Feb. 12, 2009, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) marked its 100th anniversary. It grew out of growing racial violence in the early 20th century, and particularly by race riots in Springfield, Ill., in 1908, a group of African-American leaders joined together to form this new permanent civil rights organization (NAACP).

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is marked by civil rights activists, mostly African Americans, who gathered in nonviolent protests to end segregation and pursue equality for all Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a minister and activist who led the U.S. Civil Rights movement from the 1950s until his 1968 assassination. Many leaders from within the African-American community and beyond rose to prominence during the Civil Rights era, including Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman and many others. They risked, and sometimes lost, their lives in the name of freedom and equality.

The modern African-American Civil Rights movement had transformed American democracy. It also served as a model for other group advancement and group pride efforts involving women, students, Native Americans, Chicanos, gays and lesbians, the elderly and many others. Continuing controversies regarding affirmative action programs and compensatory patterns for historically rooted patterns of discrimination were aspects of more fundamental, ongoing debates about the boundaries of individual freedom, the role of government, and alternative concepts of social justice.

Other famous African Americans include John Mercer Langston, the first black man to become a lawyer in Ohio in 1854; Thurgood Marshall was the first African American ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court (1967-1991); Shirley Chrisholm was the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1968 and was the first female candidate for president in 1974; Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman to go into space aboard the space shuttle in 1992. Many, many more have made important contributions to science, civil rights, health, and for the common benefit of all people.

Black History Month marks an important celebration of a unique culture that shaped American history profoundly and, more importantly, has helped establish the pursuit of equality for all Americans.

I encourage all of us to celebrate diversity, uniqueness and tolerance!

Dr. Astrid Heathcote is a psychologist with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. Reach her at (480) 275-2249 or www.drastrid.org.

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