Did you know that Black History month started out as a week?
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves and a scholar who went on to get a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, created “Negro History Week.” February’s theme honors Woodson, who, along with Jesse E. Moorland, co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. ASNLH’s mission was to recognize and raise awareness of the importance of African Americans in history. Woodson’s work with the ASNLH led to the creation of “Negro History Week,” which was extended to the entire month of February in its 50th year of observance, 1976.
Black History Month is a great time for our organization, the National Consumers League, to remember our own historical connections to the Civil Rights Movement. NCL supported racial equality from the beginning, as its first leader, Florence Kelley, was a founding member of the NAACP. During the New Deal, NCL called for including domestic and agricultural workers in labor laws and social security programs, and was alone among women’s groups in demanding racial justice. Lucy Mason, head of the league during the 1930s, also served on the NAACP’s board, and she cautioned against “that tendency to believe that the colored worker needs less than the white worker.”
One of the great watershed events in African American history is the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The landmark case ended federally-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools. It’s of unique interest to NCL not just for the role it played in the Civil Rights Movement, but because the winning side’s legal arguments had roots in another human rights issue that NCL was closely involved in a few decades earlier.
The brief prepared by Thurgood Marshall (who went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court) in Brown was a “Brandeis Brief.” This is a brief that’s filled with more sociological data than legal argument. Marshall’s brief demonstrated the corrosive effects of segregated schools on African American students and that separate was not equal. The first Brandeis Brief, written by Louis Brandeis himself (who also went on to become a Supreme Court Justice), came about in the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon. Brandeis, who successfully represented the interests of women laundry workers, was persuaded to write the brief by NCL’s Kelley and Vice President Josephine Goldmark. Muller upheld workers’ rights to work only 10 hours a day, and laid the groundwork for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
NCL proudly acknowledges Black History Month, and we salute the accomplishments of all of the great historical figures and leaders who have paved the way for justice and equality for us all.