by Kyle Burgess ’21
The Providence College community is celebrating its fourth annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation in February to commemorate Black History Month. Due to the continued restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, some of this year’s events were held in a virtual format, but the College’s determination to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of Black people to the American dream remained unchanged.
While the addition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation Month to the school calendar is a novel development in PC history, the origins of Black History Month are over a century old. In 1915, American historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, as he looked to bring attention to the Black migration from the South following the end of the Civil War. Nine years later, Woodson and his fellow members of Omega Psi Phi, a historically African-American fraternity, created Negro History and Literature Week (later shortened to Negro Achievement Week). Woodson would introduce the ASALH to Negro History Week in 1926, and it soon enjoyed success in many schools across the nation.
The impact of Negro History Week on American society was hard-felt. The appearance of Negro history clubs on many school campuses was commonplace, and mayors of predominantly Black cities and towns began making Negro History Week proclamations each year. In 1937, Woodson began the tradition of choosing a unique theme for each year’s celebrations. This tradition continues to this day with the theme for 2021 being “Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.”
In the decades following the establishment of Negro History Week, many young Black intellectuals began invigorating other Black Americans to take pride in their history, leading to increased popularity of the celebration. This growing interest in the holiday escalated in the wake of the civil rights movement, with President Gerald Ford publicly calling for all Americans to observe a month dedicated to Black history in the United States in 1976. As America celebrated its bicentennial anniversary of independence, Ford reminded Americans that “freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our revolution was all about…Yet it took many years before these ideals became a reality for Black citizens.” Such a celebration, he argued, would provide the nation with “the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, the College honors the accomplishments of Black Americans through a variety of talks and social events, such as a cultural paint night with musical entertainment and food, an MLK prayer vigil, and a day of service in the local Providence community. “The commemoration has been a success, since in just a few years, certain events that have impacted the campus community have become anticipated annual occurrences,” explained Quincy Bevely, assistant vice president of institutional diversity. “The success in the celebration lies in the recognition and knowledge that is shared throughout the community. It has been seen in the past through the attendance of students and faculty, the participation of members in our community, as well as the creativity that students bring to life.”
Bevely was also delighted by the turnout for the keynote virtual talk with former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, noting that his themes of unity and working towards a community of love were in line with the teachings of King and other civil rights activists. Bevely explained that there is potential for future online events, as eliminating the obstacles that travel presents will allow for the College to invite speakers from across the globe.
Ultimately, the best way for students and faculty at PC to participate in commemorating Black History Month, Bevely says, is to just participate. “Come as you are, seek to celebrate, seek to learn, seek to engage. Black history may be honored in one month, but it can be celebrated daily in our choices to continuously educate ourselves and make ourselves available to the celebrations around us. If attending events during Black History Month doesn’t align for you, then seek ways to be present in your residence halls, classrooms, and student spaces. Commemorating Black history is a significant way to honor the past of Black folks as it intertwines with the present-day efforts and changes of Black lives.”
Although Black History Month is quickly drawing to a close, it is never too late for Friars to continue educating themselves on Black history.