Chris Gray, Ph.D.

Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

I’ve been seeing lots of posts in my social media feed recently about January and just how long it feels.  There were jokes about how it’s the 47th day of January already, and the month isn’t even half over, for example.  Because this is the deepest part of winter, this makes sense.  The days are gray and dreary, and spring feels far, far away.  As I sit down to write, however, I’m about to turn the page in my calendar to February.  

After the length and heaviness of January, however, it’s definitely time to celebrate! And we will do just that as we enter Black History Month.  Celebrated annually in February, this month is a dedicated period for recognizing and honoring the achievements, contributions, and struggles of African Americans in our country. 

The history of Black History Month in the United States is deeply intertwined with the ongoing struggle for civil rights and racial equality. During the early 20th century, when historian Carter G. Woodson first introduced the concept, African Americans faced systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement. Recognizing the need to counteract the prevailing narrative of Black inferiority and subjugation, Woodson aimed to elevate the historical contributions of Black Americans, thereby fostering a sense of identity and pride.  Remember, this was a time in our country’s history when Jim Crow laws were in effect in the South, and the Civil War was relatively recent history.  Segregation was real, and it was the law following the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which created the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine that would be upheld for over sixty years until Brown v. The Board of Education began to dismantle its holding.   

Despite this institutionalized inequality, Black Americans persevered, and it’s important to remember the ways in which they have made our country better.  Since its inception a century ago, Black History Month has served as a platform to celebrate the resilience and achievements of Black individuals who have shaped every aspect of American society, from science and literature to politics and the arts. It sheds light on the struggles first against slavery, then in the fight for civil rights, and now in the ongoing pursuit of full equity and equality. It emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the full scope of American history, including the stories of those who have been marginalized and oppressed – ESPECIALLY those who have been marginalized and oppressed.  

Moreover, Black History Month encourages dialogue about the challenges that persist in our country today. It prompts discussions on racial injustice, systemic inequality, and the ongoing need for social change. By dedicating a specific time to reflect on these issues, society can work towards a more inclusive and equitable future intentionally.  We have to face our past to move forward, and we need to continue to do this work.  It is hard but absolutely necessary.

Part of our job as Erie County’s community college is to help further this push for change.  Educational institutions play a crucial role and offer important contributions to Black History Month as they organize events and activities to highlight the achievements of African Americans. The goal is to foster a deeper understanding of the complexities of Black history, encouraging empathy and tolerance, and creating an appreciation for diversity.

Black History Month is vital to modern American society because it pays homage to the past while also serving as a catalyst for ongoing conversations about racial equality and justice as we all step forward into the future.  Little by little, we are working towards building a more inclusive and equitable future for all.  We need to keep working on this, no matter how long it takes or how hard it feels.

Here at EC3, we have an event scheduled on Tuesday, February 13, to offer our campus community an opportunity to commemorate Black History Month.  We are hosting a panel discussion called “Shades of Progress:  Exploring Colorism in Black History” at our Erie West location, 2403 West 8th Street in the auditorium from 12:00pm to 1:30pm. We hope to see you there as we continue the celebration and conversation!