SHEPHERDSTOWN—Black History Month began in 1976 but many people are unaware that efforts were underway long before that time to gain recognition for African Americans in the United States.
Julia Sandy, an associate professor of history at Shepherd University, introduces her students to facts important to studying African American history, and eliminates misconceptions.
Sandy has been teaching modern American history, the civil rights movement, American women’s history and world history at Shepherd for the past 11 years. She also has an African-American history class every other spring. The class is taking place this year.
As part of her class, Sandy teaches about the deep roots of the Civil Rights movement.
“Students associate the modern civil rights movement with the 1960s. So much was taking place in the 1930s and before,” Sandy said.
A good example of the movement’s long history comes from examining Black History Month itself. Carter G. Woodson, an African American, launched Negro History Week in 1926. As a young man, Woodson worked in the coalfields of West Virginia with other African-Americans who were looking to start new lives.
It was during this time, working at the Kaymoor and Nuttallburg mines along the New River Gorge National River, listening to the stories of the everyday lives of fellow black miners that Woodson was inspired to document and teach the struggles and contributions of African-Americans.
As Sandy explained, Black History month started out as a week and it was strategically planned.
“He (Woodson) chose the second week in February because it was between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” Sandy said.
Woodson was the son of formerly enslaved parents from Virginia who came to West Virginia to work in the booming railroad and coal mining industries. Woodson spent six years hand digging and loading coal for the payment of pennies on the ton, in order to save money to attend school.
Woodson later received his Ph.D from Harvard University, founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History in 1915 and started the “Journal of Negro History” in 1916.
As another example, Sandy cited the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s as having a huge impact on the civil rights movement. Nine young black men were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. The American Communist Party at the time had been organizing against racism and economic exploitation in the American South, according to the Virginia Commonwealth University’s History Project. The American Communist Party fought to defend the Scottsboro Boys in two trials.
The group held numerous street marches and national and international speaking tours. Unfortunately, due to the prevailing attitudes of the time, it was impossible to find an impartial jury and the Scottsboro Boys were ultimately convicted.
The Communist Party worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the trails.
“The collaboration of these two organizations during the trials was used against the NAACP in the Cold War era,” Sandy said.
Sandy said her students also mistakenly think Martin Luther King was always admired during his lifetime. The truth is that he stood in and took many slings and arrows for the movement.
“He was investigated by the FBI. He had a huge disapproval rating. The fact that he is considered a ‘good’ civil rights activist is used as a weapon against many activists today,” Sandy said.
Originally from Salem, Va., Sandy said she was shocked at the attitude of her students when she was working on her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“They said race had no bearing on their lives. They knew nothing about the civil rights movement. It had no real meaning. They thought we had fixed all that. I was amazed at the lack of understanding, having been raised in southern Virginia during the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Sandy said.