Celebrating Black History Month
February is Black History Month. Do you know why? A simple walking cane tells us the story…
Just across the Anacostia River from Washington, D.C. stands Frederick Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill. In the museum collection at this National Historic site is a simple bone-handled wooden cane. How does this cane reveal the history of February as Black History Month?
American history recognizes Frederick Douglass for the remarkable figure that he was. Born into slavery, escaping to freedom at the age of twenty, the impressive Douglass spent his life as a prominent and eloquent orator for abolition and equal rights for African-Americans, even serving in several presidential administrations following the American Civil War. A statue of him stands tall and proud inside the U.S. Capitol (a statue, incidentally, that nearly every student group passes as they begin their guided tour).
Among the many significances of Douglass’ life, one was his acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln, an acquaintance that binds our story together. The two met at least a couple of times, the last just months before Lincoln’s assassination. After listening to his renowned Second Inaugural Address, Douglass attempted to visit Lincoln at the White House, only to be rudely barred entrance by guards due to his color. But Lincoln received his friend like a “man among men,” telling him “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address…Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.” These words resonated with Douglass for the rest of his life. Years after Lincoln’s passing, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, gave Douglass her husband’s favorite walking cane; a gift, she believed, her husband would have wanted him to have.
Years following the death of both Lincoln and Douglass, a noted historian named Carter Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” reflected on the impact these two giants of American history had on the African-American people. He also reflected on the fact that both men were born in February, Lincoln on the 12th, Douglass on the 14th. This inspired Woodson to select February as the month for Americans to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans and the contributions to African-Americans, both symbolized through these two men. What a fitting symbol Mary Lincoln gave to Frederick Douglass, a cane through which we can all walk through history this month.