Black History Month 2024: Education Is Freedom For All

Education has always played a pivotal role in Black History. As enslaved people in America, beginning in 1619, African Americans were either denied the ability to learn or to have any meaningful education. Individual slaves, who endeavored to read and also to teach others to read were deemed criminals, punishable by violent lashing and, in some cases, even death. Deemed properties of their owners, Black people were also prevented from either learning about their history or to utilize their native African dialects. 

Interestingly, this year’s national celebration of Black History Month takes place in an America that harkens back to days when education and Black History were despised. An increasingly vocal segment of American society is uncomfortable with Black History and its hard truths about our country’s challenges of living consistently in step with our democratic principles. Rather than seeing a critique of America’s departure from its democratic creed as an expression of courage and love, attempts to educate America about Black History are too often deemed to be racist, divisive and undermining. This narrative has been so successful over the years that in the State of Florida, several books by Black authors have reportedly been banned, while teaching about slavery as well as reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement, especially within the context of diversity, is basically illegal. 

However, since Black History is itself rooted in the belief that education is an important source of freedom and liberty, Jacqueline Hubbard of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History has created a freedom school for Black children that was led by volunteers. The Florida Freedom Schools are modeled after the Freedom School Movement for young Black Mississippians, who languished in an educational environment that was “geared to squash intellectual curiosity and different thinking.” Activists designed Freedom Schools to empower young Black people “to articulate their own desires, demands, and questions” and “to find alternative and ultimately new directions for action”. Efforts like these are very important, given the related move to undermine diversity-cum-inclusion efforts in colleges and universities across the country. 

Originally known as “Negro History Week,” Black History Month was conceptualized in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. It became a month-long celebration, recognized in February of 1976. While we celebrate and study Black history all year long, Black History Month provides a special opportunity to put Black achievements and contributions to the fabric of the U.S. in the spotlight. In addition to celebrating these accomplishments, this month is also an opportunity to organize and build on these achievements. Educating ourselves about Black History is a lot more accessible because of the work of the Oregon Black Pioneers which documents the 400+- year history of Black people and their impact in the State of Oregon.  

For our University of Oregon campus community, Black History Month is also an opportunity to celebrate the good work that Black faculty, staff and allies are leading, including the Lylle Reynolds Parker Black Cultural Center as well as Indigenous Race and Ethnic Studies, History, Sociology, the Honors College, Athletics, Lundquist College of Business, Advancement, UO Communications, UO Libraries, UO Museums, VPFA, School of Music and Dance, UO Law, Student Life, Student Services and Enrollment Management, Political Science and Women and Gender Studies. 

Black History Month 2024 at the UO also features a wide variety of events and activities engaging the myriad of identities and interests represented in our campus’s Black community. We hope that you can join us and the entire UO campus community in celebrating Black History Month 2024, with a variety of activities scheduled through March 1, 2024. The African American Workshop and Lecture Series will host Dean Leonard Baynes on February 20 at the Knight Law School and Murdock Charitable Trust CEO Romanita Hairston on February 27 at the EMU’s Redwood Auditorium. Additional campus-wide events that are being organized by the Black History Month Planning Committee can be found here:

Furthermore, Black History Month is a time for us, at UO, to assess the work that we still have to do, including but not limited to the following: recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty and staff, especially since there are entire units at the UO which are not known to have ever hired a Black faculty or staff person, or even retained a critical mass of Black people for more than two years. In fact, in my latest book, The SOULS of Black Faculty and Staff in the American Academy, I use storytelling as a framework to share strategies about how to create much more humane university environments, in which Black faculty, students and staff are a lot more welcome to stay and contribute their talents and expertise. As a university community, we need to educate ourselves about UO data on the retention of recruited Blacks and other historically underrepresented groups in order to leverage our individual behavior and institutional practices to enhance culture, climate and excellence of the University of Oregon now and for future generations.