In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Clubs, schools and communities began taking part and, eventually, amid the growing civil rights movement and increased awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month at some American colleges. In 1976 President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as an effort to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Below, Montgomery County leaders reflect on the month’s meaning and impact.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory Archbishop of Washington
It is vitally important that we annually celebrate and collectively examine the lessons given to us by African Americans who have contributed and pursued greatness frequently in the face of rejection and hostility because of their race and heritage. Black History Month is that opportunity for all of us.
In our Archdiocese, we celebrate Black History every month by sharing the many good stories of our people and parishes that serve our Black Catholic communities. We also celebrate a special commemorative Memorial Mass for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. each January; February’s Black History Month; and National Black Catholic History Month each November.
Unfortunately, we are currently living in a time of deep political and cultural division. People of faith are called to be creative and bold in our prophetic voice. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, we are called to speak out against falsehoods and to denounce violence in all forms as we advocate for and with the disadvantaged of our society.
Black History Month also provides us an opportunity to enter into a closer relationship and dialogue with our current neighbors who are African Americans. It is through closer relationships and dialogue with one another that we will overcome the polarizing and divided environment in which we find ourselves.
The only way to accomplish this is through consistent and meaningful dialogue especially between people of various faith traditions.
There is always hope no matter how bleak things may seem. The life and legacy of the African American community teaches us that. During Black History Month, and in each month of the year, we are reminded of the powerful life impact of steadfast faith and perseverance in the lives of individuals. I am hopeful as I look to the future.
Ralph Belk Deputy Executive Director, National Center for Children and Families
Our goal is to provide an environment where families experience hope and visualize a better future. So, we inspire self-esteem and a can-do spirit so they think ‘I can overcome barriers and trauma.’ We expose them to folks that look like them, who have achieved. We give them opportunities to engage folks that look like them, that have overcome obstacles. Black History Month is important not just for a month: All year we should be uplifting each other.
Dr. Norvell Coots President and CEO, Holy Cross Health
We cannot afford to lose the momentum (of the summer of social justice) in working to eliminate bias and systemic racism, to work toward more inclusion and diversity and in real and true equity for all Americans, not just Black Americans. We need to harness the collective power of Black History Month to keep social justice issues at the forefront of everything that we do.
Marcus Jones Chief of Police, Montgomery County Police Department
We have highlighted members of our police department – sworn officers and professional staff – and told their stories to educate everyone about their contributions and backgrounds, allowing for greater understanding of our diversity, and understanding the needs of others to help us all become better human beings. I think this (social and political) environment should allow for more conversation about race and diversity while respecting and recognizing others who are as important as themselves.
Catherine Leggett First Lady of Montgomery County
Black History Month is a contributing factor to healing. Where integration and inclusion and diversity have flourished, there is hope for equality for all. There are such great stories out there that show the good more than the hatred, division, fear and pain. It’s a joyful reminder of how far we’ve come, even though there is more work to be done.
Ike Leggett County Executive of Montgomery County
When, as a college freshman, I heard Benjamin Mays – the Morehouse College president – speak, I was overwhelmed with his perspective about the history of civil rights. Then I met Dr. King and it was an awe-inspiring moment. Now, with our nation so divided, Black History Month can be a springboard to look at the struggle of people who overcame unbelievable odds to become very strong contributors to this country.
Dr. Monifa McKnight Interim Superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools
We provide students with information that allows them to think critically about topics including those that impact the African American community. Hopefully this will spark inspiration in addressing long-standing issues impacting (that community). We need our youth to develop social, emotional, and academic skills that they are willing to dedicate toward stopping hate and violence; embracing and celebrating diversity; and making this world better by being the change they want to see.
Stephanie Williams General Counsel at Montgomery County Public Schools
Research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color. This is research that cannot be ignored and there’s no better time than Black History Month to reflect upon it. There’s no greater way to honor our history than to continue the work of those who came before us and continue to pave the way for a better future.
Brenda Wolff President of the Montgomery County Board of Education
This is a particularly fraught time in our country. In times like these, it is critical that we remember the lessons that our history has taught us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That is what I would like our community to take away from this year’s celebration.