Noted Black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson named the second week in February “Negro History Week” in 1926. He selected this week to correspond with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, which many in the Black community had celebrated since the late 1800s. Woodson did this to fill a void in popular understanding of the history and accomplishments of Black Americans. Over time, and with great effort, schools and cities in many states celebrated Negro History Week as an annual opportunity to teach the history of Black Americans.
At the urging of Black educators and students, Kent State University observed the first Black History Month in 1970. Six years later, during the U.S. Bicentennial, President Gerald Ford recognized the entire month of February as Black History Month. February is now widely celebrated both in the U.S. and abroad as Black or African American History Month.
Acceptance is not universal however, as some like actor Morgan Freeman have argued, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.” I could not agree more.
Nor is it our intent at Windsor Historical Society to focus on the town’s Black history only during Black History Month. Having said this, it’s been evident to many over the years that there have been serious omissions to our telling of the town’s history – not only Black history but that of many individuals, be they women, children, the poor, people of color, or others.
At WHS we acknowledge that our collections and support have come primarily from the town’s elite white families. Similarly, we acknowledge that we’ve focused most intensively on the town’s colonial and early industrial past, with an emphasis on the predominantly white founding families and their descendants.
What better time to acknowledge and atone for this past and highlight a long overdue effort to correct this record, at least in terms of Black history, than Black History Month?
In truth, this effort began long before this month. The Society has worked hard in recent years to broaden the scope of its historical collecting and programming as well as its membership and board leadership. This year, as we approach our 100th anniversary and set a path for our next century, we have identified “becoming a more inclusive organization” as our singular priority.
Concurrently, we have been working throughout the past year to adopt a more inclusive approach to “doing history”. While we admit there is a long way to go, here are some highlights that you may wish to include in your own Black History Month observances:
Windsor’s Black History webpage. New in December, this page brings local Black history stories, studies, and videos together in one easy-to-find place. Among the many fascinating features included are Marcia Hinckley’s study of Windsor’s Black history entitled “We just went on with it.” The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut, 1790-1950, (available online for the first time), the stories of Moses and Oliver Mitchell, Joseph Rainey, Nancy Toney, and much more.
Our gift shop now offers great titles such as: Five Black Lives; African American Connecticut Explored; Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery; An African American and Latinx History of the United States, and many others. These books, as with all gift shop items, are available on site or online.
Museum exhibits and images. Visit our museum in person to see the newly redesigned lobby, which incorporates fascinating images of Windsor’s diverse residents, including our latest exhibit panel: “Another Windsor First: Acknowledging Racism as a Public Health Crisis.” Tour the exhibit Windsor in 1921: The Paradox of Progress to understand the lives of Black and white families in Windsor the year the Historical Society was founded, and much more.
More to come. We have much more planned as we prepare to enter our second century, and are committed to helping give voice to the stories of all Windsor people. We recognize that doing history inclusively does not just mean putting a few books about Black and brown people on the bookshelf. For us it means transforming our entire organization and our approach to collecting and sharing stories, and importantly, partnering with members of the community in telling their own stories. We acknowledge that we have a long way to go, that it will be a full-time effort, and we will need your help. We hope you will join us in this process, and we hope you will let Windsor Historical Society be a part of your Black History Month observance!
Doug Shipman, Executive Director
Windsor Historical Society
Note: This op-ed was originally published in the Windsor Journal on February 5, 2021.