Kent State Community Reflects on How Black History Month Had an Impact on Their Lives
Black History Month is a time to honor and celebrate the accomplishments, contributions and rich legacy of Black Americans in the U.S. Its roots date back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D., founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, established Negro History Week, celebrated during the second week of February.
The first observance of Black History Month took place at Kent State in 1970, thanks to the Black United Students organization (BUS). BUS had advocated, with the support of campus educators, that the entire month of February be commemorated as Black History Month. In 1976, February received a formal national designation as Black History Month by President Gerald Ford, but by then Black History Month was a well-known observance at Kent State.
Because Kent State plays such a unique role in the origins of Black History Month, we asked members of the university community “What impact has Black History Month had on your life?” Here’s what they said.
Sonya Y. Williams, MA; BA '89
Office of University Outreach and Engagement
Office of the Provost
As a third-grade student growing up in Toledo, I attended Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. It was then that I was given the role of Shirley Chisholm to play during our Black History Month program. Of course, I had no clue who Ms. Chisholm was, as I learned that she was the first African American woman to run for President of the United States and worked in Congress, I remember thinking that I could also be the first of “many” in my life.
Indeed, I have been blessed to blaze trails despite roadblocks and challenges. As a Black woman, it is not ever lost on me the significance of our struggle, the purpose in our resilience, and sadly, the gloom of our future when confronted with an ugly reality of continued hatred by some towards Black people.
My education, my livelihood, my purpose in life is lived every day here at Kent State University! I am an alum; I am an executive administrator who is proud that I touch the lives of my staff and students entrusted to me; the accomplishments of our people propel me to show up with excellence.
The month of February is the official month of Black History due to the foresight and concerted efforts of Black United Students (BUS) 50 years ago. During the mid-eighties, I was a proud member of BUS as an undergraduate student. Our Black History Month programming was often a point of contention, similar to now, because February is the shortest month of the year. I tell people all the time we are responsible for sharing our history and making new history. We cannot sit and wait to be change agents! Now is the time to add to our Black history!
Randale L. Richmond, MA '06
Director of Athletics
Kent State University
Black History Month has served as a time for reflection, re-education, pride and inspiration for my family and me. Black Americans have had such a profound impact on this country as well as the entire world, yet, without the fight and sacrifice of so many before us, we would not know the impact and be left with the lie of inferiority and not being equal.
Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of History
Kent State University
Black History Month has had a significant impact on my life. As a child, I remember eagerly awaiting the arrival home of my father with copies of Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazines, Black history comic books! These comic book stories were exciting and captivating, especially those about Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, since none of this history was taught in my school. Reading about the important historical contributions made by so many Black people helped shape my view of the world and gave me a greater appreciation for the significant contributions that Black people have made to our nation and the world.
Black History Month was also instrumental in inspiring me to pursue a career in African American history. I am lucky to be able to teach African American history at the college level, which allows me to continue the educational tradition started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what was originally “Negro History Week.” Through teaching, I hope to instill in my students the same appreciation that I developed for Black History as a child and continue the legacy of those who have come before us.
Senior, Theatre Design/Tech/Production
Director of Marketing Relations, Black United Students
Kent State University
I have a love/hate relationship with Black History Month. I love that we have a whole month to celebrate all the wonderful accomplishments Black people have made, not only in the U.S. but also in the world. I love how much more there is to learn about my own history. But I hate that we are relegated to just a month, the shortest month at that. I hate that the nation and the world chooses to diminish just how much influence the Black population across the world has.
Since coming to Kent State, I've learned so much about myself and about Black history. It was knowledge before but now it's becoming common knowledge that Negro History Week turned into Black History Month because of the Black students here at Kent State in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As public relations representative for the Black Theatre Association in 2021, we did a project that told the history of the change, from start to finish. It opened my eyes to just how important this month is.
Though we as a community have less appreciation for it now, it's still very important. I think that we, as a people, deserve so much more than just one month. This nation was built on the backs of Black people, and we deserve more than what we get. Learning about this month has made me want to do everything in my power to get more, and better, for my people. I can and I will.
Linda Piccirillo-Smith, MA ’80
Communication Skills and Arts Coordinator
Department of Africana Studies
Kent State University
From a personal perspective, the activities and programming that have surrounded Black History Month have provided me with opportunities to expand my own knowledge and understanding of the history of people of African descent. Because of the speakers and programming that are accessible here at Kent State, in the greater Cleveland /Akron area and via media that are presented specifically because it is February/Black History Month, I have had many of these opportunities over the years. As an instructor in the department of Africana Studies, I have been able to use some of the materials generated during Black History Month in my classes - either directly in class or as resources they can access. I have also been invited to participate in some of these campus events and I have appreciated every one of these opportunities. As a member of the Kent State community, there is certainly pride in the fact that Kent State's Black United Students shifted the acknowledgment and recognition of Black History from a day to an entire month.
While the activities and programming around Black History Month have had a significant impact, there is something intangible that is even more important about having this time set aside to acknowledge the many many contributions that African descendant people have made in our country and elsewhere. I would say that it provides an emphasis on the importance of these contributions that really would be difficult to create without the existence of a month of the year dedicated to sharing this information.
Michael Daniels, Ph.D. '22
Director, E. Timothy Moore Student Multicultural Center
Division of Student Affairs
Kent State University
Earlier in my life I wasn’t aware of, or exposed to, the value of celebrating Black History Month. The schools I attended did very little to use February, let alone any other time in the school year, as a time to recognize the contributions of Black people in America or ensure that we were properly educated on the historical accuracy of Black culture. It wasn’t until I attended college when I started to learn more about Black people and those of us of African descent. My time in Upward Bound, at Kent State University, paved the way for me to understand the value of my Black heritage. Then I had the opportunity to participate in a Black Experience course, taught by Dr. Alene Barnes, my freshmen year of college and I was exposed to knowledge and engagement with my peers about the truth of African people and those who are descendants of Africans. My worldview was opened, and I experienced a paradigm shift that allowed me to adopt a more Afrocentric view. Cross (1991) characterized this as the encounter stage of Black identity development.
From that point forward, I sought out knowledge of Black culture in a deeper and more vivacious manner. I looked for authors, artists, creators, innovators, and even personal role models who could shape my understanding of the excellence of Black people. For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege to spend 11 months a year gearing up for February. Preparing for the world to see just how special and important Black people, Black culture, and Black history are to society. A fact that I can celebrate the entire year, but I am glad to share the month of February with others who may not have the same passion and vigor I have to celebrate Black culture.
I believe working at Kent State for the past eight years has allowed me to be a part of something incredibly special. It is truly special to work at the institution that is the birthplace of Black History Month. I have the honor to work alongside colleagues who were among those students and faculty members that helped to create the first Black History Month celebration in 1970. I have the privilege to engage with and support Black United Students, who were instrumental in creating and sustaining the Black History Month celebration.
Now I have the pleasure of serving as the Director of the E. Timothy Moore Student Multicultural Center, a center adorned with the name of a Black faculty member and administrator, who made such an amazing impact on this university. No one could have imagined that I would go from elementary school, barely being exposed to the importance of Black History Month, to working at the university that is the birthplace of Black History Month. It is even more amazing; I have the opportunity to lead the office that helps coordinate the celebration of Black History Month with the student organization that help start Black History Month. I have only two words, humbled and honored.