Black History Month is celebrated through February. The month-long observance is meant to recognize significant individuals and events in Black history, and while today it’s a noted international celebration (Canada and the United States maintain Black History Month in February, while Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom mark it in October), its origins are considerably more humble.
It began as “Negro History Week” in February of 1926, so chosen to coincide with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Black historian Carter G. Woodson initiated the idea, premised on the importance of cataloguing important accomplishments and people as a technique of community-building and tradition-keeping. This prompted a wellspring of Black history clubs and social groups rooted in these principles of strength and celebration, until in 1970, Kent State University celebrated the first official Black History Month. Six years later, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the occasion, encouraging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
This history is critical precisely because of the people and systems that fought—and continue to fight—to keep it from surviving. Acknowledging these histories, these victories, is to acknowledge resilience and brilliance in the face of genocides both cultural and literal. Black History Month is part of cultivating space and identity and accomplishment in a modern society built on Black subjugation.
Black History Month, in popular contexts, is good. In schools, the words and deeds of Civil Rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are taught, and the evils of segregation and racism are established. While these are critical lessons, Black History Month is an opportunity to dig beyond these cursory teachings, and connect with Black histories outside the spotlights—ones that remain obscured and erased.
This means engaging with and researching your surroundings to uncover these histories. In the spirit of encouraging this work and connecting with unsung Black heroes, we’ve highlighted critical figures and events in Black history that have been left out of most history books.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Most rock histories will trace rock and roll to the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but they’re overlooking a Black woman who could shred with the best of them. Born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is credited as ‘the Godmother of rock and roll.’ Her mix of gospel and rhythm and blues precipitated the rumble of rock and roll music, and her use of distorted electric guitars influenced British guitarists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
Coloured Hockey League
The Coloured Hockey League operated from 1895 to 1930 in Canada’s east coast provinces. Black men who traversed the Underground Railroad were brought to safety in the Maritime provinces, where a league was established for them that grew to include 400 players. The CHL is credited with pioneering not just the butterfly style of goaltending (in which a goalie drops down on their pads to make a save), but the slap shot as well. Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason highlighted this in his documentary Soul On Ice: Past, Present and Future, which notes that the slap shot originated as ‘the baseball shot,’ given the way that the players wound up to swing as they did with a baseball bat.
Donald Willard Moore
Donald Willard Moore was born in 1891 in Barbados, relocating to Canada in his 20s. He operated a dry cleaning service on Spadina Avenue in Toronto for over 50 years, during which time it became a gathering place and community hub for Toronto’s West Indian and Caribbean communities. In 1954, Moore led a campaign to change Canada’s then-anti-Black immigration laws. His work led to changes in these laws that allowed for the settlement and employment of many nurses and domestic workers from the Caribbean, establishing a community that is now an indelible part of Toronto’s fabric.