Content Warning: This article discusses details of harmful and disturbing acts of racism.
February is Black History Month. This can be a loaded topic for some, partly because it forces one to remember why a month dedicated to celebrating and honoring Black people is needed in the first place. Black History Month is about the achievements of Black people, but it’s also about making sure that Black history isn’t erased, especially in a country where that has traditionally been and continues to be the norm.
While national concepts may come to mind, such as the banning of books and the AP African American History course debates, there is one that is much closer to home for University of Maine students that very few are aware of.
In 1919, there were a pair of Black students — brothers Samuel and Roger Courtney — that were forced to tar and feather themselves by a mob of white students on campus. The white students then forced them to pose for photographs to cement their humiliation. All of this was due to self-defense when a group of three white students broke into their dorm room in an attempt to haze them. Afterwards, UMaine expelled at least one of the brothers and neither returned again. None of the white students faced any charges.
While this has been reported on by other news organizations, it was never reported on by the school newspaper despite large numbers of white students taking part. It is likely this is because of the deep racist ideas held by many white people at the time. This racism and these stories that have not been told are the reason white people should take part in Black History Month. While it may not be about them, ignoring the importance of this month continues the erasure of stories that need to be told in order to have hopes of learning from them and not repeating the same mistakes in the future.
You may say that it’s obvious this won’t happen again because we no longer tar and feather people. But that doesn’t mean acts that are modern examples are not equally rooted in racial bias and injustice. Perhaps one of the first to come to mind is the police brutality surrounding Black people.
You may also say that because UMaine and the state of Maine are primarily white, Black History Month events don’t need to be large or well-advertised. While it is true that UMaine and Maine’s white populations are well over three-fourths of the total population, that doesn’t mean that people who belong to other ethnic and racial groups don’t need to be celebrated. They need to be celebrated by everyone, not just people within their own communities who lift them up because they personally know the hardships.
Black History Month has a long history, dating back to 1925 when the first “Negro History Week” was held, the idea of Carter G. Woodson. The next year, in February of 1926, the country celebrated Black History in a time where many people didn’t belong in the narrative of the country. 50 years later this celebration was extended to an entire month and President Gerald R. Ford made it a national observance.
Forty years after that, President Obama, the first Black president, stood in the White House to give a message about Black History Month.
“Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington or from some of our sports heroes. It’s about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America,” he said.
Black History may be a difficult topic because of the history of racism that accompanies it, but that is why it is everyone’s duty, regardless of race, to ensure that it ends here and those lived experiences get celebrated every day of the year, not just one month out of 12. Black History is American History, and Black History Month is for everyone to celebrate and honor Black people and the Black experience.