Black History Month was originally only a weeklong celebration, then known as “Negro History Week,” and was started by Dr. Carter G Woodson alongside other prominent African Americans in 1926. It was sponsored by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
Black History Week started as an effort towards educating Black youth on their history because Black history and the black experience were pretty much entirely missing from traditional school education. Black History week was only celebrated during the 2nd week of February. The month was chosen because Fredrick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington all celebrated their birthdays during the month.
Black History Week inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations and events and it grew into larger popularity began evolving into Black History Month by the 1960s on several college campuses thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. With the support of President Gerald Ford, Black History Week officially became a recognized month-long event in 1976.
This year’s theme for Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness. As stated by the ASALH, this theme acknowledges the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of ‘knowing,’ taking into account the “wealth of medical knowledge and practices outside of western medicine and formal institutions originating from the African Diaspora.
To do our part in celebrating Black History Month, we would like to take the chance to highlight the accomplishments and innovations of a few important figures in Black American history.
Bayard Rustin is one of the most influential, yet overlooked, activists of the Civil Rights Movement. He was an openly gay black man who advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and Black rights. He was also extremely pacifist and a close advisor to Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr, strongly influencing him by passing on his non-violent ideas and teachings. Rustin accomplished many things in life. He led a large number of protests, organized campaigns, and led workshops on nonviolent direct action within several activist groups.
However, one of his most noteworthy contributions was being one of the main organizers for the March on Washington in 1963. He also organized and led the Freedom Rides, a series of protests that encouraged civil disobedience and protest against bus segregation in 1947.
Unfortunately, Rustin's name and contributions were largely left out of history books due to criticism and pushback because of his sexuality. But despite this, he remained a fierce advocate for justice for various oppressed and marginalized groups.
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee is an Academy Award-winning film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor. He made himself known for being unafraid to boldly show the Black perspective in his films as well as themes such as urban life, race relations, and other political issues.
Experimental angles and methods also set him apart and helped distinguish his visually appealing and impactful cinematography. He’s accredited with inventing and popularizing the double dolly shot, a specialized technique of camera movement. Lee’s best known for some such works as Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), BlacKkKlansman 2018), and Da 5 Bloods (2020).
With several hit films and awards earned over a more than 40-year long career, Spike Lee’s talent and contributions to the Black community in filmmaking can in no way be overlooked. Now working as a tenured professor at NYU, Lee continues to direct and produce projects, and recently signed on to collaborate with Netflix. With his accomplishments and success, Spike Lee has helped pave the way for following generations of talented Black filmmakers in the industry.
Mae Carol Jemison is known for being the first Black woman in space. However, her accomplishments aren’t limited to the outer-worldly. Beyond her NASA career, Jemison also pursued several other scientific fields such as engineering, physics, medicine, and technology.
Jemison showed a love to learn about science and astronomy since she was a child. She was an exceptional student and showed a lot of determination from an early age. After graduating high school early, she entered Stanford University at the age of 16. There, she received her degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She then earned her medical degree from Cornell University and began working as an Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. She also pursued graduate courses in engineering.
Following the example of Sally Ride, who became the first woman in space in 1983, Jemison applied to NASA’s astronaut training program and was one of 15 accepted out of around 2000 applicants in 1986. Jemison was the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J and in completing her first space flight, logged a total of 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space during the 8-day mission.
Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Mae Jemison.” Mae Jemison Biography, 2019,
“Bayard Rustin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Oct.
Biography.com Editors. “Mae C. Jemison.” Biography.com, A&E Networks
Television, 15 July 2021, https://www.biography.com/astronaut/mae-c-jemison.
History.com Editors. “Black History Month.” History.com, A&E Television Networks,
19 Jan. 2022, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month.
“Rustin, Bayard.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 5
Apr. 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/rustin-bayard.
“Spike Lee.” NYU Tisch School of the Arts,
Welk, Brian. “Spike Lee Signs Multiyear Film Deal with Netflix to Direct and
Produce.” TheWrap, 16 Dec. 2021, https://www.thewrap.com/spike-lee-netflix-