Each Feb. 1 marks the beginning of celebration of Black academics, poets, politics, and activists’ contributions to American history. Evolving from Carter G. Woodson’s “Negro History Week,” Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976 to uplift the “too-often neglected accomplishment of Black Americans.” But just as long as there have been efforts to uplift Black history, there have been attempts to discredit and invalidate it as well.
Beginning this year, 14 states have signed provisions into law that restrict teachings of racial justice and Black contributions to American history. Under the guide of “anti-critical race theory legislation,” lawmakers are actively working to erase Black history from the classroom and manipulate a rewritten version of history.
To honor our history and celebrate our communities we're highlighting 10 Black history facts typically hidden from school curricula:
Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was one of the first Black activist feminist publishing houses
As one of the first and few Black women-run and activist feminist publishing houses, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was a pioneer in providing a spotlight on the work of women of color writers who had little opportunities provided by other publishing houses. Birthed from a conversation between Combahee River Collective co-founder Barbara Smith and her friend, poet Audre Lorde, Kitchen Table was dedicated to reclaiming the narrative around women of color and being able to call the shots about its direction.
From 1981 to 1992, the collective distributed more than 100 titles from women of color writers. Their contributions cemented the feminsit authors that we laud today and deserve to be recognized nationally.
Langston Hughes was called before the Senate about far-left influences on his writing
Many people revere famed poet Langston Hughes, born Feb. 1, 1901, for his massive contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and Black literary arts movement. However, what people are not aware of is his Senate summons from the Subcommittee on Investigation in 1953.
Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, infamous for his strong anti-communist practices and policies, called Hughes to tesify about his personal politics and the influence of far left ideologies on some of his poems. Although he left the subcommittee unscathed, many noticed that some of his collections of work published later that decade had omitted the more charged work that had originally caught McCarthy’s eye.
Josephine Baker was a pioneer “flapper” in the 1920s
During all of our history lessons of the 1920s, we all remember learning about the glamor of the “Roaring Twenties”, the post-war celebrations, and, of course, a foundational reading or screen of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What we didn’t learn was that Josephine Baker — a Black woman — was a central figure in American culture at the time. Born in St. Louis Baker first garnered attention as a street dancer and quickly became a famed “Charleston” dancer.
After moving to New York and garnering more attention through Broadway productions, her move to France and well-known Danse Sauvage cemented her as an icon in the jazz era and Roaring 20s. Later in her career, she aligned herself with the civil rights movement, refusing to perform in segregated venues.
Ella Baker was a mother of the Civil Rights Movement
We’re often taught that the Civil Rights Movement was mainly helmed by men like Rev. Martin Luther King, but women leaders like Ella Baker were instrumental in the organizing power of such movements. In 1943, Ella Baker was a field secretary of the NAACP and eventually became the director of the organization’s branches. In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to support Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) while running her own voter registration campaign, the Crusade for Citizenship.
After the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, Baker held a meeting for student organizers at Shaw University where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. As a key organizer fighting for major strides in voting rights and civil rights, Ella Baker deserves her place in history as much as her contemporaries.
Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run and time in Congress
Shirley Chisholm, born in 1924 in New York, was both the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s nomination and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination. She served as congressional representative for New York’s 12th district for 14 years, making her the first Black woman elected to Congress yet her achievements are often omitted in early education.
Her contributions and efforts at the intersection of symbolic power can be summed up in her own campaign words: "I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history."
Toni Morrison’s works including 'Beloved,' 'Song of Solomon,' and 'The Bluest Eye,' banned in several areas
To discover that much of Toni Morrison’s life work is banned from school-age children in several states is the perfect example of targeted censorship. Morrison, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner, has laid the foundation for Black literature in the 20th century.
Her novels have covered themes related to ancestry, spirituality, colorism, and familial ties in ways that have left a lasting legacy on authors of today. The active attempts to disconnect her contributions on literature is a prime example of erasing the contributions of Black Americans especially from schools.
Everything about Henrietta Lacks
Baltimore mother Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to the world of science and medicine should be a part of every biology class in the United States. In 1951, Lacks was having a tumor biopsied during treatment at John Hopkins Hospital and those cells were, without her knowledge, used for further medical research.
What developed from her contributions was the first cell line able to continue to reproduce indefinitely. One of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the era has never had proper attribution to its main contributor — Lacks passed away two months after the initial biopsy and her family was not aware of the breakthrough until decades later. Even after the 2010 film about her life and her family, the life of Henrietta Lacks deserves further studies in classrooms and textbooks.
Tulsa’s Greenwood District and the many Black Wall streets across the nation
Despite popular media claims, the development of successful Black communities filled with thriving Black-owned businesses were common throughout the 1900s. What the textbooks tend to leave out is that these neighborhoods and cities were destroyed physically by targeted attacks from white supremacists and gradually eroded by a history of disinvestment and redlining.
Popular recognition of the destruction of “Black Wall Street” known as the Tulsa Massacre did not develop until nearly 100 years later from programs like HBO’s Watchmen and the recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021.
The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children initiative inspired the USDA’s free breakfast programs
If the Black Panther Party even makes it into a textbook or education curriculum, it is often demonized for its radicalism. However, the United States took note of the Panthers’ food initiatives in Oakland. In 1969, party members started preparing meals for hundreds of schoolchildren free of charge. Shortly after, the program was adopted by party chapters nationwide, feeding thousands of children in 45 different programs at its peak. The FBI, with director J. Edgar Hoover, initiated raids to break up the program, destroying food and harassing party members in front of children.
However, with thousands of children accustomed to free food, political officials were pressured by parents to develop an alternative — in 1975, after the Panthers’ program was forcefully ended, the USDA implemented the School Breakfast Program which still helps feed almost 15 million children today.
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The truth about the post-emancipation reconstruction era
The history of slavery and emancipation is especially muddled with half-truths and inaccuracies, especially as lawmakers are trying to rewrite what really happened. Often referred to as the radical reconstruction era, post–1865 was a time of great social and political progress for Black Americans — the first Black universities were founded, the first Black politicians were elected into federal legislatures, and influx of Black businesses were able to flourish.
Although a lot of this progress was stamped out by targeted Jim Crow laws introduced near the end of the century, it is an injustice to skip over such a monumental era of Black history.
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Visit www.colorofchange.org and follow on social @ColorOfChange.