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History of Black History Month and Celebrating Presidents

February is Black History Month, and it's also the month when we honor American presidents. It seems especially fitting to commemorate both occasions this year, as the nation just recently inaugurated its first ever African-American president.

Most of us think of Black History Month as an event of recent origin, but it had its birth nearly a century ago. Of course, like other newborns, it wasn't fully grown yet; it started out as just a single week. It was the brainchild of prominent historian Dr. Carter Woodson, the son of slaves who didn't even begin high school until the age of 20, because he'd spent his youth laboring in Kentucky coal mines. Once he did enroll in high school, it took him all of two years to graduate; and when he later acquired a Ph.D, it was only from Harvard.

Dr. Woodson, however, was troubled by what he found in his studies, or rather by what he didn't find: namely, credit to the many African-Americans who contributed to this nation's history. Virtually the only mention of them in history books at that time was in their role as slaves and servants. To help remedy this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) in 1915, the Journal of Negro History in 1916, and Negro History Week in 1926. Not bad for a decade's work, even if he'd never done anything else. Negro History Week matured into Black History Month half a century later—6 years, alas, after Dr. Woodson's death.

And why February? Well, Dr. Woodson wanted to establish this week during the middle of the month largely because it coincided with the birthdays of two men who contributed greatly to African-American heritage: Frederick Doulass and Abraham Lincoln. But there are many other reasons why the entire month of February is appropriate. Let us count some of the ways. Feb. 23 (1868) is the birthday of early civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. Feb. 3 (1870) marks the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to African-Americans. Feb. 25 (1870) is the anniversary of the swearing-in of the first African-American senator, Hiram Revels. (Strangely enough, he filled the seat vacated when Jefferson Davis left the senate to become President of the Confederacy.) Feb. 12 (1909) is the anniversary of the founding of the NAACP in New York City—one of its founders was W.E.B. DuBois. And, after the fact, Feb. 1, 1960 turned out to be the date the landmark "sit-in" began at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC.

February, of course, also contains the birthday of George Washington. And since 1971, the third Monday of February has been known as Presidents' Day, a federal holiday that's theoretically supposed to honor both Washington and Lincoln. For those of us too young to remember, they had separate birthdays once upon a time: Lincoln on Feb. 12th and Washington on the 22nd. Washington's birthday has been a federal holiday since 1880. Lincoln's never has been.

How Many Presidents?

Barack Hussein Obama is now the 44th president of the United States. Oops, not quite. For those of us too young to remember, Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms. He was elected the 22nd president in 1884, then in his reelection bid in 1888 he won the popular vote but lost the presidency to Benjamin Harrison on a technicality called the electoral vote. Four years later, however, he won the rematch in a knockout. Thus, President Obama's is the 44th administration, but he is only the 43rd person to hold the title.

UNLESS... you count John Hanson as the first U.S. President. John who? Some people maintain that Hanson, and not Washington, was the groundbreaker.. (Let's note here that historians are by no means in universal agreement about the exact year that marks the beginning of the United States of America.) Hanson, a congressman from Maryland, served a one-year term as President of the Continental Congress beginning in 1781. His grandson began promoting the idea that he should be regarded as the first actual president of the new nation, and many people have agreed. He was succeeded by 7 other men serving one-year terms before George Washington was elected—by unanimous vote of the electoral college—to a four-year term in 1789 upon the ratification of the Constitution. So, if you count those 8 one-year wonders, Obama is the 51st president. Or 52nd if you count Cleveland twice.

UNLESS... you also count the 8 men, beginning with Peyton Randolph, who also served one-year terms before the Articles of Confederation unified the states. That would bring the total to 59 or 60. No, wait. Peyton Randolph and John Hancock (not to be confused with John Hanson, who didn't sign his name as large) set a precedent for Cleveland by serving twice each. (Perhaps Hancock needed the extra year to finish signing all the documents.) So that would make 57 or 59.

But there is, in fact, good reason why we normally begin the tally with Washington. It was, after all, the Constitution that formally established the office of President of the United States, and the duties attached to it. Those other men, despite bearing a similar title, weren't quite wearing the same hat. So Obama should be reckoned the 44th. Or 43rd.

UNLESS... you count David Rice Acthison. There is a persistent tradition that he served as president for a total of one day in 1849. Zachary Taylor, the incoming president, had religious scruples about working on Sunday (thank heavens the nation's capital was not attacked on that day of the week during his term) and he even refused to take the inaugural oath on Sunday as scheduled. So the story goes that Atchison, the Secretary of State, was acting president in the interim. There is little evidence to support this claim, however. Most likely, the country simply went without a president for a day.

On the Other Hand

Barack Obama is not only the first African-American president, he's also the first native of Hawaii elected to that office, and only the third sitting senator to be elected president (the others were Harding and Kennedy). He's also the 8th, more or less, to be left-handed. That's not such an unusual fact in itself; about 10 to 15 percent of the population shares this trait. What makes it truly amazing, however, is that 5 of those southpaws are to be found in the 7 most recent presidents: Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton and Obama. In the past election, Obama faced off against another southpaw, John McCain. In 1992, the three major contenders were all lefties: Clinton, Bush and Ross Perot. Is there some sinister conspiracy afoot here? (Note: the word sinister comes from the Latin word meaning left; and that it has come to mean shady, evil or malicious gives an indication how much disfavor left-handedness has been held in. Likewise the French word gauche, which has come to mean awkward or uncouth.)

The other presidents believed to have been left-handed were Harry Truman, James Garfield, and possibly Herbert Hoover. We say "believed" and "possibly" because in the past, left-handedness was considered a handicap, and it was hushed up as if it were an ailment of the alimentary tract. (We do know, nonetheless, that Benjamin Franklin was definitely a sinistral.) As children, these individuals would have faced pressure from parents, teachers and peers to do things with the "proper" hand. It's no wonder, then, that Reagan, Truman, Hoover and Garfield turned out to be ambidextrous. Reagan actually used his right hand for most tasks later in life. Garfield claimed to be able to write simultaneously in Latin with one hand and Greek with the other. And some presidents have had trouble enough with English!

Gender Mender

Many Americans were disappointed that the past election did not produce either the first female president or the first female vice-president. But many historians would argue that in fact we've already had an acting female president—not an official president, mind you, but a president for all practical purposes. And it happened nearly a hundred years ago.

She was Edith Wilson, first lady and second wife of President Woodrow Wilson. (He married her while in office.) Evidence strongly indicates that after his stroke in 1919, he was unable to perform the duties of his office for several months; and that she stepped in, quietly taking command behind the scenes. You go, girl! Incidentally, leadership was "in her blood"; she was a descendant of a princess named Pocahontas.

Truth is Stranger, but Myths are Fun

But as Dr. McCoy of Star Trek might put it, "I'm a folklorist, Jim, not a historian." And as folklorists, we are endlessly fascinated by myths of all kinds, including those that arise about actual historical personages—see our rendition of the Davy Crockett legends if you haven't already. Presidents, being highly visible, are especially prone to myths, legends and rumors. Here are some of our favorites.

  1. George Washington's teeth. No, they were not made of wood. They were made of ivory and gold and metal springs and other such stuff that created quite uncomfortable contraptions (he had more than one set). That's why you never see anything resembling a smile in any of his portraits. He lost his own teeth, by the way, because he had a nasty habit of cracking nuts with them.
  2. George Washington and the cherry tree. We all know by now that he didn't really chop one down, either with an ax or his teeth. What you may not realize is that he probably never would have even gotten that close to one. He is believed to have been allergic to cherries.
  3. Lincoln scrawling the Gettysburg address on an envelope on the train. Whoever started that one apparently didn't realize how inhumanly bumpy such a ride must have been. It really would have come out sounding like the Gettysburg Distress. Lincoln wrote the speech on White House stationery on a desk that was stationary, beginning it in Washington, and taking plenty of time to revise and polish. (The bit about the envelope is probably confusion with the origin of "Taps", the initial melody of which actually was scrawled on the back of an envelope.)
  4. Eerie similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy. Sure, such parallels exist, but no more than can be attributed to coincidence; and reports about them often ignore the differences, which were equally impressive. Not to mention that they tweak the facts or even fabricate them outright. It's been stated, for instance, that Kennedy's secretary, whose name was Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas, and Lincoln's secretary, whose name was Kennedy, warned him not to go to Ford's Theatre. Kennedy really did have a secretary named Lincoln, but there's no record that Lincoln ever had one named Kennedy.
  5. William Howard Taft accidentally starting the tradition of the seventh-inning stretch when he stood to stretch his legs during a baseball game. Actually, the seventh-inning stretch predates Taft's administration, and is in fact just about as old as baseball itself.
  6. Zachary Taylor dying from eating cold cherries and milk on a hot day. (What is it with presidents and cherries, anyway?) Yes, he did eat them, and yes he did fall ill and die shortly thereafter. But apparently the fruit was contaminated by some deadly virus or bacteria, and he ate a tremendous serving of it. He also sampled a lot of other food provided by the public—it was an Independence Day celebration—so some of that may have been contaminated. Or there is a theory that he was poisoned. In any case, it was not the combination of milk and cherries, or of heat and cold, that did the trick. And at least he didn't die on a Sunday.
  7. Lincoln walking 12 miles to pay back a penny overcharge. Actually, this one is very close to the truth. He walked to a place 6 miles away (12 miles roundtrip) to pay back 6 cents. People did a great deal more walking then, and a penny was worth something, and there was a great difference between a penny and 6 cents. Still, this incident illustrates a tremendous effort to be honest. By the way, Lincoln often carried items, including official papers, in his famous hat. And he really did grow a beard a few days after receiving that suggestion in a letter from an 11-year-old girl, a suggestion he initially dismissed as ridiculous.

Here's hoping that you have a fun Black History Month, President's Day, and Library Lover's Month.

Act!vatedly Yours,
Dennis and Kimberly Goza
The Act!vated Storytellers

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Tags: Black, History, President, folklore

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