Carter G. Woodson said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Black history has been celebrated in the U.S. for the last 95 years. The idea was conceived more than 100 years ago. Still, the stories of Black PR pioneers remain largely unknown.
Diversifying history—especially PR history—is essential. What lessons can the diverse leaders in our industry’s history teach us about ethical and accurate representation today and in the future?
The Father of Black History Month
In 1915, Woodson created the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This organization laid the foundation for what we now observe each February as Black History Month.
The massive under-representation of African Americans in books and literature on American history was Woodson’s inspiration. The organization worked to promote studying Black history as a discipline and honoring African Americans’ many accolades.
What we know as Black History Month initially was a week-long celebration. Woodson’s “Negro History Week,” in 1926, launched with a mission to bring attention to school systems that needed help creating curriculums on Black history. It was observed the week of February 7th—perfectly coordinated to also commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th and Frederick Douglass’s birthday on the 14th.
The campaign was extremely successful, leading to demand for teaching materials and sparking the birth of many Black history clubs and associations.
In 1976, for the 200th anniversary of the United States, President Gerald Ford announced that February would be recognized nationally as Black History Month.
Be Your Advocate
Woodson certainly received inspiration from powerful figures like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, who rightfully are considered PR pioneers when one takes a closer look at their personal histories.
Douglass, originally Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was born into slavery. Later, he escaped and changed his name to avoid being caught. He was an activist for equality and human rights and was heavily involved in the abolitionist movement. In addition, he was a newspaper editor, writer and lecturer.
He authored three powerful autobiographies, released between 1845 and 1855, putting him at risk of recapture. He attacked slavery and racism through speeches and editorials. He even had portraits of himself painted to illustrate the image of a successful freed slave.
During the Civil War, he encouraged African Americans to join the Union Army because it brought them closer to eliminating slavery. He also advised Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on issues affecting African Americans. After the war, he fought Jim Crow segregation.
Like Douglass, Ida B. Wells was born into slavery. She was soon freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. She mastered many roles, including journalist, educator and activist—pooling skills that one needs to work in PR.
After experiencing racism on a train ride, Wells began writing about race and politics. When she became a teacher in Memphis, she began to cover issues in segregated schools and was later fired for her ideas in 1891.
In 1892, a white mob lynched three African American men who set up a grocery store in Memphis. Wells traveled the South for two months to gather more incident reports, including them in a campaign she launched soon after.
After newspapers rejected her writings, she founded publications and went on to publish large lynching reports. She eventually brought these writings to President William McKinley, in 1898, calling for reform.
Separately, in 1896, Wells formed the National Association of Colored Women. Later she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, in 1913. The club played a huge role in victory for women’s suffrage in Illinois that year.
Keep Sharing Black Stories
If any sector can share content en route to a more diverse history, it could, and should, be the PR industry. Diverse stories need to be brought forward.
PR pros must acknowledge the diverse history of their field and let others know how social movements were really PR campaigns—especially amplifying how Black PR pioneers were advocates for themselves and their community.
Since introducing the annual “Celebrating Black PR History” event in 2015, the Museum of PR has identified and share stories of numerous Black PR pioneers. Histories of pioneers like Moss Kendrix, Joseph Baker, Ofield Dukes, Inez Kaiser, Patricia Tobin and many others can be found at the Museum’s site.
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