Black History Month at the AFT
Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson met the growing enthusiasm for exhibits and journals about “Negro life and history” by focusing that interest during one week of February. Why February? Woodson knew it would be a natural extension of existing celebrations among Black Americans who marked the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The idea blossomed, and soon the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which Woodson had founded in 1912, was distributing pictures, school lessons and informational posters to teachers and families excited to share knowledge, acknowledgement and celebration. By 1976 the celebration had expanded and in 1976 ASNLH helped establish a national observance: Since then, every U.S. president has proclaimed February Black History Month.
As an education-based union, the AFT recognizes the origin of Black History Month not just as an opportunity for learning but as an example of Black excellence. From our very beginning we’ve been dedicated to civil rights and social justice, from helping fund the March on Washington to filing an amicus brief to desegregate schools through the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education. Our members taught in the Freedom Schools and our leaders denied membership to affiliates that refused to integrate. Today we fight against book bans and censored history and fight for safe, well-funded and welcoming schools and public spaces for Black Americans who are too often shortchanged and marginalized. AFT is part of Black history and Black history is integral to who we are as a union.
This year’s Black History Month theme is “African Americans and the Arts.” What a joyful opportunity to celebrate the artistic expression of centuries of our nation’s experiences and to uplift the resistance and empowerment woven into everything from visual art to music, dance, literature and film. From Phillis Wheatley’s inspiring poetry to Alvin Ailey’s emotive dance, Robert Johnson’s haunting blues to Zora Neale Hurston’s groundbreaking fiction; there are painters, playwrights, photographers and sculptors, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop and Afrofuturism and so much more.
Below you will find links to all things AFT Black history: From our resolutions, to our articles and videos, and to our lessons and blog posts on Share My Lesson, the AFT celebrates Black history, Black people and our work toward a more equitable future for all.
A recent report has uncovered yet another case of racial disparity in education: Where there are more Black and Hispanic college students, there are fewer full-time faculty to go around. The study, published by the City University of New York Faculty Senate, shows gaping differences among CUNY and State University of New York colleges, where the number of faculty per 1,000 students at schools with a majority of Black and Hispanic students is lower than at those with a majority of white students. It’s an important finding since research shows more faculty engagement means greater academic success.
Sometimes the history books just get it wrong — or provide a limited, one-sided viewpoint.
University of South Florida education law professor and racial equity expert Dana Thompson Dorsey sees the evidence. In the past year, Dr. Thompson Dorsey has reviewed several social studies and United States history textbooks with minimal historical text related to enslavement in the United States.
I was 11 years old, in elementary school, when my parents took me to the 1963 March on Washington. We walked 3 1/2 miles from our home in Southeast Washington, D.C., to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly. I remember walking down East Capitol Street and everyone was in a joyful mood. We all just wanted to come together and be a part of the experience. We were making history.
When labor and civil rights icon A. Philip Randolph kicked off the 1963 March on Washington from a stage at the Lincoln Memorial, he understood that the event was monumental — but just one piece of a continuing movement against racism and inequity. The march was “only the first wave,” he said. “When we leave, it will be to carry the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours.”
I have been teaching United States history at the High School for Environmental Studies, a New York City public high school, for 18 years and every year it feels as though I am negotiating two things at once: I am sharing painful, even crushing truths about the American story while at the same time presenting this knowledge of our ugly history as a tool we can all use to take action and bring us closer to our nations’ foundational ideas.
While it is true that Rosa Parks, a Black woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., it wasn’t because she was physically tired. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she said later.
As lawmakers in places like Florida continue to target public education at every level, trying to restrict teaching about Black history and banning books by and about Black, Latino and other marginalized people, the AFT has created a new forum to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion. On March 14, a panel of academics kicked off a series of sessions that will address the intersection of race, higher education and the labor movement, sharing their experiences as Black professionals in higher ed in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the importance of representation, shared governance and academic freedom.
Ida B Wells. W.E.B. Du Bois. Thurgood Marshall. Toni Morrison, Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris. Oprah Winfrey.
These are just a few of the accomplished graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, but there are millions more whose experiences, while not quite as high-profile, have been just as profound for them and their communities. Now the AFT is more connected than ever to that legacy, as the union welcomes 17 HBCUs to our higher education family.
In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has voted “no” on affirmative action, making it illegal to consider race in college admissions and reversing decades of practice that has made higher education more accessible to Black, Indigenous and Latinx people. The AFT joins other civil rights advocates in condemning the decision as harmful not just to those who will be shut out of colleges and universities, but to every student and to society writ large. “Today’s draconian ruling by the Supreme Court is a catastrophic decision that will have dire outcomes for millions of Americans for decades to come,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference, the largest Black public policy conference in the nation, was abuzz with big names, big ideas and big aspirations Sept. 20-24 in Washington, D.C., and AFT members were right in the midst of it, attending two days of professional development that focused on the state of public education for Black students and Black educators.
Co-sponsored by the AFT; the National Education Association; and the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans, sessions titled “The Courage to Teach” featured educators, union leaders, activists and elected officials who conveyed the urgency of this moment—as white supremacist ideology undermines public education, and its proponents attack Black people—and offered real-world solutions.
At Suffolk County Community College in New York, faculty and staff gather each summer for real talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, and throughout the year they share strategies about how to be “more JEDI.” No, not Jedi knights in “Star Wars.” The JEDI acronym means “just, equitable, diverse and inclusive.”