By Joyce Conyers (Chief Yeoman, USN, Ret), Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command
Along with the rest of the country, the Navy History and Heritage Command observes February as African American Heritage Month. African Americans have served with distinction in every war and conflict in the history of the United States and have earned the highest awards our country bestows, including the Congressional Medal of Honor and Navy Cross. Our country was built with the unpaid labor of fellow citizens and non-citizens alike who were committed to democratic values and improving their lives. We understand that not so long ago many people of color served in limited positions and were often excluded from depictions of our nation’s history. However, through the study of history we have learned that our diverse population has fought to secure the rights of all.
In the federal government we wear unity as a badge of decency. Agencies like the Department of Navy, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Office of Personal Management, recognize and honor diversity and equal opportunity in the work place. The genesis of this dates back to 1915, when historian, scholar, and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Through this organization, now known as the Association for the Study of Life and History (ASALH), Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. He selected the week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two prominent figures in the history of African Americans.
On February 3, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by citizens of color.” On February 10, 1976 this commemoration was expanded by ASALH to be a month-long celebration or Black History Month, also known as African American History Month. President Ford issued the first message on the observance of Black History Month that year.
Ten years later, Congress passed Public Law 99-244 ,which designated February 1986 as National Black (Afro-American) History Month. This marked “the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History.” The law also called upon future presidents to continue the observance. President Ronald Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation No. 5443 which stated “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity,” and described it as a time “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion.”
More than 100 years later, Dr. Woodson’s efforts to disseminate and celebrate African American’s contributions to the United States’ development and defense continue with the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. Equal opportunity and diversity are being embraced more today than ever before. Many segments of Americas’ population have contributed to these efforts. Hopefully, this month provides the forum and context for dialogue about our shared history and aspirations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everyone can be great … because everyone can serve.” Diversity and inclusion have enhanced our nation and our Navy, how has is enhanced your personal life?
Editor’s note: For those wishing to know more about the African American experience in the Navy, check out our website. On it, you will find images, ships named in honor in African Americans, oral histories, and much more.
For those wishing to know about Dr. Woodson’s contributions to African American studies and his influence today, visit the National Park Service page here.