Each February, the U.S. celebrates Black History Month, highlighting the rich heritage, extraordinary achievements and unique culture of African Americans throughout our nation’s history.
The precursor to Black History Month began in 1926, when noted historian and journalist Dr. Carter G. Woodson launched “Negro History Week” in an effort to bring African American history front and center and ensure it was taught in schools and studied by other scholars.
The event, first celebrated during a week that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, didn’t become an officially recognized month-long celebration until 50 years later, when President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In honor of this year’s Black History Month, we recently reached out to several African American entrepreneurs and community leaders we’ve gotten to know through our work to find out what this celebration means to them in their own words.
Here’s what they told us:
Executive Director, Black & Brilliant Entrepreneur Magazine
For me, Black History Month is a celebration of the advancements and profound contributions that Black Men and Women have made on our society, culture, and overall development as a nation. It’s a remembrance that Black Men and Women are the vessels that have held our families together, fueled our economy, and birthed a collective of incredibly brilliant leaders. Black History Month is a time of humility as I remember the faith and prayers that have carried us through our darkest times. It’s the ultimate indicator that my labor is not in vain, rather it continues to lay the groundwork and widen the lane for our present and future leaders to emerge.
I’m most inspired by women like Lilly Ruth Wilson, Mildred West and Darla Payne whose resilience, faith, and sweat equity push me past my limits, comfort me during my most vulnerable moments, and inspire me to light the world with my gifts. I am a lighthouse in a sea of Black and Brilliant Men and Women working daily to leave the world better than we found it. I am Black History.
Carmella M. Williams
Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Youngstown Business Incubator
For me Black History Month is the anniversary month in which I get to celebrate and get an overdose of Black History. To me, I believe in celebrating all year long because those who came before me did and created things that are continually making my life better. I celebrate by exercising my rights and freedoms by sharing as much information as possible to help others.
The new stories I learn about during Black History Month re-energize me to stay the course. Madam CJ Walker’s story is amazing and I am grateful that she decided to blaze the trail of entrepreneurship.
Black History Month is a month that allows us to take a step back, reflect on and honor the accomplishments of our ancestors. We tend to sometimes neglect the sacrifices that were made to transmute the earlier actions in history that caused a great deal of humiliation amongst blacks. We should not only seclude recognitions to one month of the year, but instead, celebrate and reflect all year.
The individuals who put forth their strengths for equality did not receive the opportunity to celebrate or reflect on these accomplishments, we must not fall short of completing this for them.
Director & Program Manager, Capital Access Fund of Greater Cleveland
Black History Month is a time to reflect on not just the achievements of historic black leaders and figures but also ponder the strategies and tactics used to achieve great success. Too often we focus on the “who” and “why” and neglect to ask the question of how did they achieve their goals which in most cases is not attractive or newsworthy to most people. Black leaders who have made significant lasting contributions to U.S. History knew the importance of hard work, preparation and steadfastness despite living in circumstances that were not ideal if not hostile to their goals and dreams.
Let us learn an important lesson from these great leaders that nothing comes easy. Whether it is a dream in the mind of Martin Luther King Jr. or winning 23 Grand Slam Championships like Serena William achieved, the hard work, dedication and persistence will grant you the opportunity to be named among the greats in history.
Monica D. Green
Founder, Beauty and Barber Empowerment Center
Black History Month for me is a time to reflect and pull strength from my ancestry.
I can feel the pioneer spirit of Harriet Tubman upon me as I work on my day-to-day mission to make career pathways in the beauty industry relevant to society. I relate to the visionary spirit of Martin Luther King, always seeing and speaking to the future by sharing the dream while confronting the day-to-day reality of how our people are currently living. I muster up the faith of Jessie Jackson to keep my “dream alive” and see it through. And, I am stirred up by the HOPE Barack Obama talked about during his presidency—hope that gives me strength as an entrepreneur.
Founder, CEO & Chief Creative Officer, Three Butterflies Entertainment & Press LLC
From my perspective, Black History Month represents both a triumph and tragedy. The tragedy is that the United States has yet to recognize the integrated and inclusive nature of the contributions of all its citizens as part of a fully-integrated curriculum that is taught in schools on a daily basis. The triumph is that we have a 28-day recognition of notable African-Americans in every realm of society.
From the death of Crispus Attucks (the first person to die in the American Revolution) to the contributions three Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. members—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—made to the U.S. space program (depicted in the award-nominated book and film, Hidden Figures), Black History month represents an important celebration of an ethnic group that has face so much historic oppression.
As an entrepreneur in the field of publishing and entertainment, I am most inspired by the accomplishments of people like Oprah, Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Salim and Mara Brock Akil, publisher Haki Madhubuti and Ava DuVernay—whose creative and political sensibilities resonate strongly with me.
Co-Founder & Executive Director at Hillman Accelerator
While we highlight African Americans during Black History month, I and many leaders in the community have made it our mission to highlight our community’s wins every single day of the year.
Our history and our current reality must be embedded into the other 11 months. People must have daily, not yearly reminders, that the African American experience is robust and full of huge contributions to our society.
My father, mother and ancestors have fueled the fire within me, and looking at my children inspires me to push forward every day.
Founder Urban Kutz Barbershop
To me, Black History Month is huge because it highlights the many accomplishments of African Americans that have helped bring this country to where it is today. African Americans have been so instrumental in the construction of the United States in every way, shape and form. But, there are so many negative images about us in America and some people have no personal interaction with our community at all, so they don’t see any counter to those images.
Urban Kutz Barbershop, is a very multicultural place and many of the people who come to our business may not have had much interaction with the African American community. So, I speak to my staff all the time about African American image destruction and how it’s up to us to counter so many of the myths people see in the news or on social media—whether it’s Black History Month or any other month.
One of my favorite African American historical figures is George Washington Carver. He was a very humble man, but he had so much passion for what he did he exceeded all boundaries that were set for him and surpassed everyone’s expectations for his life. He once said “Start with what you are and what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.” And that is exactly what I’ve tried to do.
I see Black History Month as the perfect time to celebrate those that came before us and sacrificed to put our future first. It is also a reminder that there is still a lot of work to do.
This month inspires emerging leaders to continue to accept the challenge to be creative and fight for inclusion, equality, access and justice for all.
To learn more about Black History Month and find ways to celebrate in your community, visit these resources.