Photo taken by J Dean in Easton, Maryland on May 2021. Statue of Frederick Douglass in front of the Talbot County Courthouse.

From Douglass Day to Black History Month

By Yolonda P. Harrison

In workshops, I typically mention Frederick Douglass and how his thoughts have inspired generations of antiracist scholars and activists. Occasionally, workshop attendees tell me that they are not familiar with Frederick Douglass or his work.  In those moments, I have flashbacks to learning about Frederick Douglass while growing up in Baltimore — a city pivotal to his life.  Before I knew of Feb. 14 as “Valentine’s Day,” I knew it as “Douglass Day.”  I didn’t realize that wasn’t the norm until I moved outside of Baltimore.

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass was never made aware of his actual birthday but eventually narrowed it down to Feb. 1817 or 1818.  Upon his passing in 1895, Feb. 14 (the date he chose to celebrate while living) was reported as his birthday.  Due to the impact of Frederick Douglass as an abolitionist, author, orator, and, suffragist, Mary Church Terrell worked to designate his birthday as “Douglass Day” in Washington, D.C. schools.  Between 1897 and 1901, schools for Black children in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, and other U.S. cities began to celebrate Douglass Day by reflecting on the legacy of Frederick Douglass and discussing what his work meant for future generations.  As time went on, Douglass Day was also utilized to further campaigns such as the anti-lynching movement. 

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson expanded Douglass Day into “Negro History Week” to promote awareness of Black culture and history.  Until his death in 1950, Dr. Woodson curated materials for and spoke to students throughout the country during the second week of February. In 1969, Black students at Kent State University advocated for a monthlong celebration of Black culture and they began that monthly observance in 1970.  In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued a statement recognizing the observance of “Black History Month,” noting that Americans should “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of [B]lack Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Each Douglass Day, I set out to reflect on the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass.  As I do so this year, I can’t help but think of:

How grateful I am that Black history has always been integrated into my education, both informally and formally.  And how knowing that history helps me daily, whether I’m having conversations about race or coping with racial trauma.

How students in Florida and other states may not have the benefit of studying any works by Frederick Douglass or countless other Black authors who give valuable insight into Black experiences (past and present).  And how the absence of that insight has the likelihood to slow their progression toward becoming antiracist or impact their racial identity development.

How the inclusion of, belief in, and respect for the lived experiences of Black people, can help to dismantle anti-Black bias, prejudice, discrimination, and racism.  And how, in the wake of the killings of Karon Blake, Tyre Nichols, and Alonzo Bagley, dismantling anti-Blackness and recognizing the humanity of Black people needs to be a priority for us all.

*Photo by J Dean on Unsplash