Ketcia Peters

Tuesday 31 January 2023

Happy Black History Month

by Ketcia Peters

I was talking with my kids the other day about Black History Month. They were curious about the history of it, since they practically lived most of their life knowing that each February we celebrate our history.

There and then I noticed something: I knew quite a few things about it but not enough to answer all of their questions.

I’m not a historian of course, so I never paid much attention to how it came to be. And, I think, that’s a pity because I then realized that it is quite important to make younger generations understand that our history is also this one: the History of this month.

So, I did a bit of research, and a bit of enquiry, to make sure to write something that younger generations and future ones, could use as a map of how we’ve achieved Black History Month.

It, of course, starts in the U.S.

In 1915, coincidentally with the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States, Carter G. Woodson founded what is now known as ASALH, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

It is this first stage that made Woodson the forerunner of what is now known as Black History Month.

Woodson, known now as the father of black history, was born in Virginia in 1815 to ex-slave parents, he then grew up in a racist society and quickly realized that for him, and many others, access to a good education and job opportunities were limited.

Which, as descriptive as it may sound, is significant to repeat. It’s clear that we’ve had a difficult life throughout the decades, but it’s important to make sure that we mark clearly every stretch of time.

In those years, access to education and well-paid jobs was tremendously limited for our people.

Compared to our own standards, they lived an abysmal existence.

So, it’s quite important to note how far Carter Woodson went, and how his role was pivotal to better American society, and as an extension, our own too.

In the course of his life, Woodson got several qualifications that led him to acquire a PhD in history at Harvard University.

Also, throughout his life, Woodson committed himself to promote history in schools, he was the organiser of the first black history photography exhibit at the first Black Progress Exposition, and he helped in creating the first Journal of African American History.

His work, his efforts, alongside many others, was essential, to say the least.

In 1926 Woodson sent out a press release celebrating the first Negro History Week in the United States. They staged historical reenactments of pivotal moments in black history during those weeks, as newspapers published historical articles and local businesses offered as sponsors and participated in the festivities.

The celebration was not only about historical events; artistic skills, musical abilities, literature and art were celebrated as well.

Those weeks kept on coming, year after year.

In the following decades, they issued annual proclamations, recognising Black History Week throughout the country.

By the late 1960s, thanks to the action of the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of black identity, Black History Week had grown into Black History Month at many universities and campuses.

The events got so big and so widely celebrated that President Gerald Ford officially recognised Black History Month in 1976, urging the public to “seize the opportunity to honour the too often overlooked achievements of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

Since then, every American president has designated February as Black History Month, endorsing a specific theme for each year. The choice, apparently, fell on this month because it coincides with the birth of former president Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

And, to be honest, I rather prefer the latter character to the dear old Abe.

Other presidents honoured the month of celebration in the years that followed until February 1986, when Congress officially declared February as National African American History Month.

Presidents began making annual proclamations on the event in 1996, and it has been commemorated nationally ever since.

Certainly, Black History Month is not just for people of colour, nor is it a month-long vacation for African Americans. It’s also not a month when one should blame white people for 400 years of slavery and racial segregation, nor is it a month for one to grieve the deaths of black icons.

It’s a moment of contemplation and celebration. Without grudges or hatred.

On our side of the border, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was founded in 1978. and its founders, including Dr Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, petitioned the City of Toronto to formally declare February as Black History Month.

Toronto issued the first Canadian proclamation in 1979.

The House of Commons formally recognised February as Black History Month in Canada in December 1995. The House of Commons passed unanimously the motion.

Senator Donald Oliver, Canada’s first Black senator, proposed the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month in February 2008. It was unanimously approved and adopted on March 4, 2008.

By approving this motion, Canada’s legislative stance on Black History Month was accomplished.

The truth is: there is something larger behind Black History Month.

It is a month that represents a reaction to the belief, widespread in the early 20th century and earlier, that people of colour have made no significant contributions to the history of human civilization, and especially to American history.

It was fundamental to make a shift, to make people realise that wasn’t true. And it was necessary.

It is still, today.

According to the latest statistics, there is still considerable discrimination; Black unemployment remains at twice the rate of white Americans, and furthermore, black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of their fellow whites.

And Canada, as I’ve written many times before, is not immensely in a better position.

Black life is seen as an expendable passage in American history and, I want to accentuate it, not only in America.

I see black History Month as an opportunity to honour the brilliant achievements of educators and innovators, as well as to learn about and celebrate Black culture, heritage and our achievements.

And if these lines can start a conversation about these weeks, about our history, I’ll be particularly proud of myself.

Plus, I can now tell the story of this month to my kids, and I’ll be quite confident.

Ketcia Peters is an entrepreneur and community advocate for economic inclusion and development for Black Canadians and the social justice sector. Her firm, Ketcia Peters Group Inc. (KPG) provides bilingual organizational and human development services to the public and private sector.  This includes analysis and coaching of HR practices, strategic planning, organizational change, equity and inclusivity, and anti-racism. KPG also provides individual and group coaching.  In recent years, KP Group Inc. has shifted to greatly expand its equity, diversity and inclusivity work at the municipal and community level, with a focus on anti-racism and anti-oppression.  This work centers on a trauma-informed approach in order to ensure we do not cause further harm to those most marginalized in our communities. Visit her website at: