Do you know the history of October’s Black History Month?

3 Oct 2022, 6:00

Understanding the origins of next month’s celebratory activity – and when it first arrived in your local area – can be deeply engaging for students, writes Ellisha Soanes

Did you know that Black History Month originally started in America?

The Association for the Study of African American Life was founded in 1915, 50 years after the abolition of slavery, to celebrate the progress and achievement of black citizens in that time.

By 1926, one of its founders, Carter G. Woodson, set up a history month so that these achievements and issues could be studied annually. It was placed in the second week of February, to coincide with the birthday of black icons such as social reformer and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

The event inspired schools and communities to celebrate nationwide. They established history clubs and hosted performances and lectures. By the 1970s, U.S. presidents officially acknowledged this month as Black History Month.

Across the pond this found a platform in the U.K. in 1987. Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo steered this movement with local councils across London, supported by Linda Bellos, the leader of Lambeth council.

Still going strong

Thirty years on, the mission of paying homage to the people who brought about positive change remains.

I investigated how Black History Month came to prominence in the county where I live, Suffolk. I discovered that back in 1993, thanks to the work of a lady called Del White, the event started to have an impact in our community.

At the time, Del had to create her own campaign, working with local authorities to help push more diverse and inclusive programmes in schools and colleges.

One of the success stories relates to a student group that has been set up at The One Sixth Form College in Ipswich, called the Ethnic Youth Empowerment Society. It had been supported by Ian Brown and Ashton Harewood, personal progress tutors from the sixth form, which is part of Eastern Colleges Group.

Ian and Ashton are trailblazers who have created art galleries featuring black heroes; been to Notting Hill to find out about the origins of the carnival; and talked with two of the writers of the iconic BBC TV series Small Axe, which focuses on the lives of Caribbean migrants in London from the 1960s to the 1980s. They have also celebrated Windrush Day.

This year, Ian and Ashton will be creating a video on what black history means to our students and this will be showcased to staff, feeder schools and the community.

Meanwhile, as part of my work with community partners, I’ve written an interactive black history book aimed at young people, exploring local and national heroes from the black community with Aspire Black Suffolk. This is a community enterprise that focuses on diversity, equality and inclusion through positive action.

As a result of partnerships with local community groups, we have also brought people into the college to tell their amazing stories.

We’ve had artists, professional footballers, pilots, entrepreneurs, charity bosses and singers.

Memories of Windrush

One of the breakthrough moments for me was when our students heard a talk from people with connections to the Windrush generation. Sadly, the vast majority of our learners had never heard of this story. It was emotional to see the impact these talks had.

The majority of our learners had never heard of the Windrush generation

I’m inspired everyday by a quote from Marian Wright Edelman, an American civil rights activist, who said: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. If you show your college community success stories from a range of communities, it has a positive impact on their futures. People feel represented.

As part of our last big event, we also hosted an exhibition from an artist from Ukraine who had recently left her homeland to escape the war currently raging.

For all these reasons and more, Black History Month is vital. But it’s also important to listen and hear from gamechangers that represent a host of different communities to help inspire us all. Not just as a one-off, but throughout the year. 

So, why not start by learning about the local history of Black History Month in your area? You never know where it might lead you.

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