Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States for more than 50 years. The first event took place in February 1970 at Ohio’s Kent State University. Six years later, in 1976, the monthlong celebration of Black history and the achievements of Black Americans was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford. But the story of Black History Month began decades earlier.
In 1915, Carter G. Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). (The organization is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH.) Dr. Woodson, a scholar and the second African-American, after W.E.B. DuBois, to obtain a PhD degree at Harvard, wanted to honor Black history and heritage and ensure that these were recognized as a significant part of American culture. Under his leadership, the ASNLH created research and publication outlets for Black scholars with the establishment of the Journal of Negro History in 1916 and the Negro History Bulletin in 1937.
In February 1926, Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week. (He chose the month of February because it is the month in which both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born.) The weeklong celebration, which included historical performances, lectures and parades, became the precursor to Black History Month—Dr. Woodson aspired to expand the observance as he wanted Americans to learn about Black history throughout the year, not just during one week.
At the time of Dr. Woodson’s death in 1950, mayors across the country supported Negro History Week. The celebration gained momentum in the following two decades and eventually evolved into Black History Month. Fifty years after Dr. Woodson announced the first Negro History Week, President Ford recognized Black History Month “as an important element of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations” and urged all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
On January 31, President Biden made his second proclamation in support of Black History Month. The official statement noted that while the United States was founded on the idea that “all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated with equal dignity throughout our lives,” the country has often failed to live up to that promise.
“The long shadows of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining—and the blight of systemic racism that still diminishes our Nation today—hold America back from reaching our full promise and potential,” the proclamation read. “But by facing those tragedies openly and honestly and working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise of equity and dignity for all, we become a stronger Nation—a more perfect version of ourselves.”
Honoring Black History Month in Sonoma County
Black History Month is celebrated in a variety of ways across the United States and in Sonoma County this February. The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness” and it acknowledges the contributions of Black Americans to the medical field as well as racial inequalities within the healthcare system.
On Feb. 26, Petaluma Blacks for Community Development (PBCD) will host a virtual event and exhibit in collaboration with the Sonoma County Library to address this year’s theme through music, dance, and a discussion among a panel of local medical practitioners.
Faith Ross, co-founder and vice president of PBCD, is organizing the event and exhibit, which she said will pinpoint some of the causes of racial disparities within health care and highlight the progress that has been made in this area.
“Our exhibit this year is Black health and wellness, and so we’re looking at the factors that created some of the problems for Black people and of course the start of that was slavery,” she said.
Ross said that the enslavement of Black people combined with the challenges, suffering and injustices of the Jim Crow era have created lasting trauma that continues to impact both the mental and physical health of Black Americans.
“But on the other side of that was the total resilience of Black people in their determination to make it in this new country,” Ross continued. “And so we’re talking a lot about the Black scientists and medical people and the hospitals that they created and how we brought so much to American history — we call it Black history but it really is American history.”
Ross and her colleagues at PBCD are assembling a panel of medical professionals from around the county for their virtual event, along with several other special guests who will provide entertainment and edifying conversation.
Guest speakers and performers will include Bay Area gospel and R&B singer Sharon D. Henderson; Petaluma-based poet, rapper and educator Kayatta; and former professional football player, mental health advocate and author of the children’s book “Carter: My Dream, My Reality” Tyrell Zimmerman. Representatives from PBCD’s Grapevine Youth Leadership Program will also present a special video during the event. (Learn more about this event and register here.)
A series of events
Throughout Black History Month, Sonoma State University will be hosting a series of events, both virtual and in-person. Mendel Murray, a professional academic advisor at SSU, said this year’s celebration is centered on the theme of Black pride, and there will be plenty of opportunities for students and community members to participate.
“I want for those that are part of the Black or African-American community to take away some sort of pride and joy for where you come from,” Murray said. “I think for those that are not a part of that community to just be aware of some of the issues that people in the Black community are facing and really just be an ally to us — understanding our issues and being by our side as we’re going through life.”
Murray believes that learning about our history and background is fundamental to understanding who we are: We need to know where we came from in order to have a better understanding of where we are going. And by taking the time to listen to those from different backgrounds we can learn something about who they are and where they came from; we can understand them better and also be able to better support them.
“It’s just listening more than you speak,” he said. “Everyone has a voice, everyone has something that they want to say. But I think that when it comes to this conversation of race and different cultures, it’s really about letting the people who’ve been oppressed speak.”
The university kicked off the monthlong celebration with an opening ceremony on Feb. 1 centered around the topic of perseverance. Keynote speaker, Dr. Sharon Fuller, a professor of women and gender studies, highlighted what the Black community has overcome and achieved. Other SSU events this month will include a virtual conversation with Rohnert Park Mayor Jackie Elward, free weekly yoga sessions, movie screenings, reading groups and an art night.
A closing ceremony will be held Feb. 25 from 7-8 p.m. at SSU’s Student Center in Ballroom A and will feature an open discussion on the topic “What it means to have Black pride.” (See the full list of SSU’s events here.)
Creating an anti-racism poster
The Sonoma County Library is hosting several virtual events during Black History Month, including family story times, book club meetings, documentary film discussions and more. (See the full list of the library’s events here.)
The library is also offering a “#GoodTrouble Action Pack” poster project for teens throughout the month. The project is in response to the Black Lives Matter poster that was found burned at the Sebastopol Regional Library last month, and the goal is to provide young people with the opportunity to speak out against racism with posters of their own, which will be displayed at libraries across the county. Students from grades seven to 12 can register for the library event to receive a free poster-making kit.
There are a host of other ways to honor, celebrate and learn about Black history here in Sonoma County—whether it’s sitting down with a recommended book or movie or attending educational and interactive events. Below is a selection of virtual and in-person events, exhibits and performances you can attend this month.
The Black Student-Athlete Experience, Maintaining Black Pride, Feb. 15
Dimitrous Chattman, former student athlete at San Jose State, will share the story of his transformative journey from educational to sports management with professional football teams and coaches. The talk will be held at Sonoma State’s Student Center in Ballroom B on Feb. 15 from 7-8 p.m. The event will also be livestreamed on Zoom. 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, 707-664-4246, studentcenter.sonoma.edu
African and African American Folktales, Feb. 16
Renowned storyteller Kirk Waller will share African and African-American folktales through music, song, movement and spoken word during a free virtual event hosted by Sonoma Library. The event will be held on Feb. 16 from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Register for the event here.
Failures of School Desegregation, Feb. 23
Dr. Kayla Walters Doughty of Sonoma State University’s sociology department will facilitate a reading group workshop to discuss unequal education and some of the consequences of school segregation. The workshop will review selected works on school segregation during a Zoom meeting on Feb. 23 from 5-6:30 p.m. Register here to attend the free event.
Black & Politics with Rohnert Park Mayor Jackie Elward, Feb. 24
Join Sonoma State University’s Black Student Union and community in a discussion with Rohnert Park Mayor Jackie Elward as she shares her journey in politics. The event will take place on Feb. 24 from 2-3:30 p.m. in SSU’s HUB Cultural Center, in the Student Center’s Ballroom B. 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, 707-664-4246, hub.sonoma.edu
Boosting Resilience and Creativity with Dr. Eki’Shola Edwards, Feb. 25
Award-winning musician and lifestyle medicine physician Dr. Eki’Shola Edwards will share her personal story of resilience and hope along with simple techniques to foster creativity and wellness in a virtual presentation. The event will take place on Feb. 25 from 6-7 p.m. Learn more and register for the free event here.
Black History Month Closing Ceremony, Feb. 25
Sonoma State University will close out its month of celebrations with a closing ceremony focused on the topic of Black pride. Black-identified organizations on campus, along with other members of the student body and community, will highlight more of the achievements and successes of the Black community. The event will take place in SSU’s Student Center in Ballroom A on Feb. 25 from 7-8 p.m. The event will also be livestreamed here. 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, 707-664-4246, studentcenter.sonoma.edu
Black History Month Celebration: Black Health and Wellness, Feb. 26
In collaboration with the Sonoma County Regional Library, Petaluma Blacks for Community Development is hosting a Black History Month celebration centered on the theme of “Black Health and Wellness.” A panel of local medical professionals will discuss racial disparities within the health care system, and special guests will provide engaging dialogue and entertainment through music, dance, readings and more. The event will happen over Zoom on Saturday, Feb. 26, from 6:30-8 p.m. Learn more and register here.
Black Health and Wellness, Feb. 12
Petaluma Blacks for Community Development is facilitating an exhibition on the theme of “Black Health and Wellness” at the Petaluma branch of the Sonoma County Regional Library, opening on Saturday, Feb. 12. The exhibit will feature historical and recent information on racial disparities within the health care system as well as the Black community’s numerous contributions to the medical field. 100 Fairgrounds Drive, Petaluma, 707-763-9801, sonomalibrary.org
Black and White in Black and White, Currently Online
The Petaluma Historical Library & Museum has a virtual exhibit of last year’s physical exhibit “Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope and Diversity in America,” curated by Douglas Keister. The exhibit includes information on Black history in America as well as historical photographs, music, biographies and interactive features. Explore the free virtual exhibit here. 20 Fourth St., Petaluma, 707-778-4398, petalumamuseum.com
American Rhapsody, Feb. 12-14
The Santa Rosa Symphony will host award-winning pianist Michelle Cann for a three-day concert covering the works of notable composers, including William Grant Still and Florence Price, both esteemed African-American composers whose work comprised many “firsts.” The concert will be held Feb. 12-14 in Weill Hall of Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center. Learn more and buy tickets here. 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, 707-664-4246, gmc.sonoma.edu
Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Feb. 12, 16
Rialto Cinemas is celebrating Black History Month with two encore screenings of award-winning composer Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” The opera is an adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same name and follows the poignant, coming-of-age story of a young Black man from the south. It’s the first opera by a Black composer presented at The Met. The two encore showings will be held on Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. and on Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. Learn more and purchase tickets here. 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol, 707-525-4840, rialtocinemas.com
A Radical Friendship, Feb. 19
The Congregation Shomrei Torah will host the performance of a play by Jane Marla Robbins that imagines Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel meeting to address civil rights issues and forming a special kinship. Nicholas Augusta and Robert Bauer will star in the two-person play and Raven Performing Arts Theater’s Artistic Director Steven David Martin will direct. The play will be performed Feb. 19 from 7-9 p.m. Learn more and register for the event here. 2600 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, 707-578-5519, cstsr.org