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African American History Month Ends with Renewed Debates Over the Usefulness of the 80-year-old US Tradition


Over the last 80 years millions of people have observed African-American History Month in the United States during February. Now that the annual tradition has ended for this year a renewed debate has been sparked over whether the U.S. tradition has outlived its usefulness. VOA's Chris Simkins reports on how the observance got started and why some believe there is no longer a need to celebrate it.

African American History Month, a time when people recall and celebrate the positive accomplishments made by people of African descent. They include people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who led a nonviolent movement against racial segregation in the 1950s and 60s, or Frederick Douglass, who fought to end slavery in the United States in the 1850s and 60's.

The annual tradition of recognizing contributions made by African-Americans to the nation began 80 years ago after historian and teacher Carter Woodson founded, what was then called Negro History Week, in 1926.

Greg Carr, a professor of African-American studies at Howard University in Washington, DC, says Woodson dedicated his life to preserving black life, history and culture. "Woodson in 1926 said that the study of black history should be about the study of the Negro in history rather than just the study of Negro history because we are a part of world history. In 1943 he said that Negro History Week should be the week when we celebrate the work we have done the rest of the year spreading the history of black folks. Now today it is almost the exact opposite."

Today, the black history celebration has been extended into a month-long observance. The tradition is still born out of the belief that if African-Americans were to take their rightful place in American society, people of all races should learn about black contributions to American history. But many people, including some blacks, now question the relevance of a black history month.

One person leading that charge is Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. In a nationally televised interview Freeman said there was no need to set aside a special time to celebrate black history. Some other prominent blacks agree with Freeman's comments saying black history is included enough in normal discussions and studies of American history all year long.

Sandy Bellamy, Executive Director of the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History in Baltimore, Maryland disagrees. She says even today some American history textbooks have little written in them about black history.

"You cannot be marginalized, you should not be marginalized or relegated to the footnotes of American history. African-Americans really need to be a part of the entire narrative."

But others argue people should not separate the accomplishments of black Americans but integrate them into regular American history. That's what Lonnie Bunch is trying to do. He is the director of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The museum will be built near the Washington Monument and close to other well-known Smithsonian museums.

Bunch says this museum will help ensure that the study of black history takes place all year long: However, he still likes the idea of maintaining a Black History Month.

"I think the challenge for us is to take African American History and really tweak it. Move it away from a celebration of sort of 'famous first' and 'who invented the golf tee' kind of list ,but rather help us create a month that allows us to understand ambiguity of the past, to understand slavery and how it is important for all of us in this country whether our families came here in 1820,1920 or 20 minutes ago."

People on both sides of the African-American History Month debate say whether the annual tradition is relevant or not, it is important to fulfill Carter Woodson's dream of the importance of a people having knowledge of their race and its contributions to civilization.

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