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African American History Month Has Its Own History, Future

Americans commemorate the heritage of African-Americans every February in what is known as African American History Month, yet little is known about the association that started the tradition and what it is doing now.

James Stewart is the current president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

He proudly outlines the group's own history.

"The association was started in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson who is one of the first black PhDs from Harvard University," said James Stewart. "Carter G. Woodson established what was first called Negro History Week, which later became Negro History Month, and has evolved into Black History Month."

Stewart collects politically-charged African American art at his home in Pennsylvania.

"The piece here is a representation by Elizabeth Catlett of a lynching," he said. "There are no faces of the perpetrators so that it is a way of saying that this is really a cultural phenomenon as opposed to something that is done by individuals."

Stewart says Black History Month is an effective method to combat such persecution.

"For so many decades, there was a dismissal of the impact of people of African descent on Western civilizations," said Stewart. "So the recovery and elevation of that history is absolutely critical for ongoing efforts to try to promote equality in this country."

Stewart worries about the current shrinking of black neighborhoods in big American cities. Several decades ago they were thriving cultural centers.

The deeper you go into some traditionally black inner city areas, Stewart says, like here in Pittsburgh's Hill District, the more you see abandoned homes, run-down storefronts and police chasing people down.

Stewart is helping with efforts to revive these neighborhoods.

"What you are describing is what I would call a 21st century approach to community empowerment," he said.

Malik Bankston is the executive director of the Kingsley Association community center. He is exhibiting a miniaturized version of a Pittsburgh neighborhood in order to work on ideas for renewal.

Malik Bankston, the executive director of the Kingsley Association community center
Malik Bankston, the executive director of the Kingsley Association community center

He says it is important to remember heritage while also working for the future.

"Right outside of this building is a mural project that was completed about 16 months ago and on that mural project are depicted the faces of all sorts of people who are part of this neighborhood's past," said Malik Bankston. "But there are also faces of people who represent the neighborhood's future. Most of us don't usually realize that we are actually making history."

In the U.S. capital, Washington, members of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History recently came together to celebrate the 135th anniversary of Carter G. Woodson's birth.

Like the founder of Black History Month, they said they were proud of their heritage, and would make sure it continues to thrive.