Black History Month is a very well-known and recognized celebration in February throughout Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom; but how did it start? Recognition for racial equality began with the American Civil Rights Movement in 1955, which was sparked when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Following this, Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged the community to organize a bus boycott, which caused the bus line to be desegregated. [1] Around the world, leaders such as Nelson Mandela started fighting against racial inequality and working towards making the world more accepting for people of colour.

The concept of Black History Month started a few decades before the movement became widespread. The second week of February was designated “Negro History Week” in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson because it had the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom have been celebrated by the Black community for years. However, the week was not supported much nor was it well-known or widely celebrated. Black History Month was first celebrated in Kent State in 1970. Six years later, institutions across America start celebrating it. Due to this, President Gerald Ford made the month official in the USA in 1976, and Canada recognized this and soon adopted it as well. [2]

Today, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recognizes fourteen different culture and heritage months, including Black History Month, that represent the diverse African-Canadian student population across the board. According to the TDSB’s 2011 census, black students make up 12% of the TDSB’s student population. [3]

At Marc Garneau CI, the Social Justice and Equity Committee (SJEC) has historically been in charge of organizing events for Black History Month. However, the Black Student Union (BSU) was founded this year by Grade 12 student Biethel Keflu, and it has now taken over organization of the month. “The club was created to make Black students, minorities in the school, feel like they belong. Going to a predominantly Asian middle school and high school, I never stopped feeling the pressure of being a minority. I also knew that there were other students who felt this way, and that’s why BSU was founded.” On 26 February 2019, BSU members read one of several announcement reflecting on the historical significance of the month. They focused on Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American from Florida, who was shot by a police officer without cause in 2012 due to racial profiling. Following the tragedy, the Black Lives Matter campaign was started, amid several similar incidents of police brutality or killings by police due to racial profiling. The announcement concluded by acknowledging the importance of empathizing with the struggles of minorities to truly bring change.

Biethel Keflu founded the
Black Students Union. Image: Elmirah Ahmad

The BSU also spent their weekly meetings during February watching the movie, “Twelve Years a Slave”, and will invite Grade 12 social science classes to watch the documentary, “Thirteenth Police Brutality” in the coming weeks. Biethel said, “Black History Month is a time to remember Black historical figures that have gotten us to where we are today. However, Black historical figures shouldn’t just be remembered and celebrated during one month but Black history needs to be integrated with the rest of history and celebrated throughout the entire year.”

Black History Month is much more than just simply organizing events that support the culture or talking about celebrated figures; it is about changing the perspective that is still prevalent throughout the world about African people and people of colour. Black History Month shows us that cultural differences throughout the world shouldn’t be a cause for violence, but rather a thing to be celebrated. Even though racism in the world today is decreasing, there is still work that needs to be done. It is up to us to look past the colour of a person’s skin and appreciate them for who they truly are.

[1] https://www.pbs.org/johngardner/chapters/4b.html

[2] http://mentalfloss.com/article/91756/why-was-february-chosen-black-history-month

[3] https://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/PortraitsBlack.pdf