Black History Month 2024: Recognizing Black Leaders in Education

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Today, the fifteenth of February, marks the middle of Black History Month in the United States and Canada. Though the roots of this affinity month date back to the 1920s with the recognition of “Negro History Week” by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), a month-long affinity period was first proposed in 1969 by educators and students at Kent State University, followed by their first celebration of Black History Month in 1970. 

Historically, both educators and students have played a pivotal role in changing culture; for it is often their firm belief that education and knowledge lead to the empowerment of marginalized groups. To them, classrooms have served as places where ideas are fostered, engaged with, and critiqued; students should leave them feeling equipped to enter the world as positive change-makers, sharing with others the history that they have learned and tools they’ve acquired to become the difference they want in the world. 

However, classrooms have not always been accessible and inclusive to all students, as education was once–and too often remains–a symbol of status and privilege. Where and when education has been made equitable and accessible to underserved populations, the most significant cultural change occurs. 

Going back in history, we recognize time and time again the impact that education has made in advancing the rights and freedoms of marginalized peoples in the United States and elsewhere. For Black History Month this year, we’re recognizing seven Black leaders who understood the power of education to inspire what’s possible for the generations that followed. 

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 - 1987)

Referred to as “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” by Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator and civil rights activist best known for organizing citizenship schools for African Americans. The schools were developed with the goal of improving literacy among African Americans in the Deep South, which, Clark hoped, would also empower these communities to learn about citizenship rights and become active in the fight for voting rights. 

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 - 1955)

Founder of the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune spent decades of her life developing and improving educational opportunities for Black youth. Her school eventually merged with the boy’s Cookman Institute in 1931 to become the Bethune-Cookman College, of which she became president. In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW); she earned a full-time staff position at the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1936, where she was quickly appointed to Director of the Division of Negro Affairs; and in 1938, after befriending Eleanor and Franklin Rooselvelt, Bethune formed the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which served as an advisory board to President Roosevelt. 

Anna Julia Cooper (1858 - 1964)

One of the first African American women to earn a doctoral degree, Anna Julia Cooper emphasized the importance of education for Black women and is considered one of the most significant contributors to the field of African American women’s studies through her scholarly work. Her first book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, is considered her most important work and is recognized as one of the earliest books about Black feminism. In 1930, she became the president of Frelinghuysen University, where she was dedicated to increasing literacy among unskilled Black workers. 

William Leo Hansberry (1894 - 1965)

William Leo Hansberry, a pioneering scholar in African history and studies at Howard University, was the first to teach African history at a university in the United States. During his more-than-forty-year tenure at Howard University, Hansberry mentored many African and African American students, including Kwame Nkrumah, who would later become the first prime minister and president of Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was a driving force in the movement for Nigerian independence and became the country’s first president. 

Marva Collins (1936 - 2015) 

Dedicated to providing high-quality education to low-income African American students, Marva Collins founded the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago in 1975. With decades of teaching experience in the inner-city Chicago Public School system, Collins developed innovative teaching methods that instilled confidence and a love for learning in her students, achieving academic success with children that were mislabeled by the Chicago Public School system as being learning disabled. Together with her daughter, Collins ran the school for more than 30 years. 

Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 - 1950) 

Often referred to as the “Father of Black History”, Carter Godwin Woodson was an educator and historian who devoted his life to promoting the study of African American history. In 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which created Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson elected to celebrate Black history in the middle of February each year because the time coincides with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). While Woodson did not live to experience Negro History Week becoming Black History Month, he is one of the most important driving forces behind the February designation. 

Johnnetta Betsch Cole (1936 - ) 

The first female African American president of Spelman College, Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a prominent advocate for diversity and inclusion in education. While at Spelman College, Cole established innovative programs aimed at empowering African American women and promoting academic excellence and social responsibility. Cole also served as the Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, became the 7th president for the National Council of Negro Women (2018 - 2022), and was once considered for the cabinet post of Secretary of Education.