In the 1920s, Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and announced a Negro History Week in order to raise awareness about African American contributions to the nation. By 1976, on America’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford expanded this national event to a month-long celebration in honor of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Today, citizens across the nation take the month of February to learn about African-American history and to recognize its significance in our modern lives.
This year, Montgomery County is celebrating Black History Month in a variety of ways: through its schools, libraries, media pages, parks, and museums. Those interested in history can learn about the significance of Jim Crowe streetcar laws at the Colesville Trolley Museum, or about how the Underground Railroad was used right in the heart of Montgomery County through guided tours. Poetry and literature lovers can experience the “Sounds of Freedom” spoken word event at Josiah Henson Park or can visit the Isaac Riley plantation, which inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For those too busy to visit the parks and museums the county has to offer, the Montgomery County Media website devotes an entire page to documentaries that center on African-American history in Montgomery County. Furthermore, the Montgomery County Public Libraries is hosting readings of civil-rights-struggle-inspired stories to children.
“There so many different ways to learn about black history this year,” says Stasia McUlsky, a junior at Churchill High School. “If you’re interested in books, there are tons of options at the libraries. If you’re interested in sports, there are videos on the black history of baseball. Every school has its own focus, too. Our school has been playing all different types of music sung or composed by African Americans between classes.”
Walter Johnson senior Kathryn Leverenz discusses her own school’s approach to the month-long celebration and reflects upon the importance of the month as a whole. “We have a Black History assembly later this month,” she says. “It’s something we’ve done for a while now and is a great tradition to have. I think of Black History Month as a time of remembrance for all who made it their priority to end discrimination and racial injustice in the US and I’m glad we have a month dedicated to it.”
The Black Heritage Month Assembly is a popular tradition among many MCPS schools. At Julius West Middle School, an administration-organized student assembly often features guest speakers from the NAACP, music and dance performances, as well as jazz ensembles delivering selections by renowned Black composers such as Duke Ellington. In addition, a portion of the assembly is dedicated to recognizing top winners of the Black History Bee, a contest open to all 6th graders attending schools in the DC metro area.
“Some students realize they don’t know as much about the Black community and try to gain more familiarity, while others are there to simply enjoy the show,” says Diana Mystal, a social studies teacher at Julius West. “I’ve coached students interested in competing in the Black History Bee, and it’s a great joy to see young people learning about different cultural communities.”
Elsewhere in the county, Blake High School has commemorated the occasion by launching a school-wide essay contest encouraging students to share about the fight for civil rights by their family. The top three students received gift card prizes. In the past, Blake High School has also organized symposiums on the subject of racial relations. The Montgomery County Honors Jazz Band also prepared for a special performance at Rockville High School to celebrate the musical artistry of African Americans. With their strong membership, many Black Student Unions across Montgomery County have also prepared jeopardy games, plays, and visual art shows for their school community.
No matter if it is browsing the display case across a high school library or tuning in to a soulful jazz concert, Montgomery County residents young and old can find engaging venues to gain appreciation for a community cornerstone to the makings of America. With lyrics and chords, poetry and tours, February is the month of storytelling that recreates moments of injustices and triumphs for future generations to rewind and contemplate.
Article by Kaamiya Hargis and Jessica Li, MoCo Student staff writers
Graphic by Michelle Tu, MoCo Student staff artist