February is the shortest month, but it’s long on major events. This month, we observe Groundhog Day and, of course, Super Bowl Sunday; however, there are some days that are even more significant to know about, including Black History Month, Presidents Day, and Valentine’s Day. Here’s a little info on those February days we’ll all want to observe.
Black History Month
Throughout the month of February, we recognize the many, often overlooked, contributions African Americans have made to America’s history. The evolution of Black History Month has an interesting history of its own, and dates back to the end of the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, ending slavery, and was codified in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. And yet, it may come as a surprise to many students, it wasn’t until the 1960s—just over 50 years ago, and 100 years after the 14th Amendment promised that the government would enforce “equal protection of the laws”—that African Americans were finally guaranteed the rights that the Constitution says every citizen should enjoy.
Until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, African Americans could be denied entry to theaters, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, libraries and public schools, and could be denied a job based on race. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, African Americans could encounter state and local barriers, designed to deny them their right to vote.
Even with this progress, textbooks and classrooms in the 1960s and ’70s mainly provided the history of Caucasian Americans when teaching American history. Despite being a crucial component in the American story, the lives of many important African Americans were hardly ever mentioned in history classes.
Then, in 1976, President Gerald Ford took the occasion of America’s bicentennial year to officially recognize Black History Month, asking Americans to, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Other African Americans who have made the world a better place, are Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nat King Cole, Alvin Ailey, Berry Gordy, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama, and the list could go on and on.
American history has benefited from the skills and talents of people from every race, religion, and ethnic background. Celebrating Black History Month is a way for Americans to express gratitude to members of the African American community who have given our country so much, and whose achievements went unrecognized for so long.
After the death of George Washington in 1799, his birthday on February 22 started being celebrated as a kind of unofficial holiday. Every year, Americans would observe Washington’s birthday by commemorating his achievements as one of America’s first great leaders.
By 1879, the annual celebration of Washington’s birth became so popular that President Rutherford B. Hayes signed its observation into law, making February 22 a federal holiday. Because the date was close to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, just 10 days before on February 12, Americans started honoring Lincoln along with Washington on February 22.
In 1971, the federal government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established certain holidays be officially celebrated on Mondays to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees. The passing of this law moved Washington’s birthday celebration to the third Monday of February. While it was still technically Washington’s Birthday,, states soon started referring to this holiday as Presidents Day to give it a more general name and honor all who have served as president.
Though this holiday originally started as honoring only Washington, and while we should never forget the precedent set by our very first national leader, it’s important that we reflect on the many achievements of all our presidents, each of whom has contributed to making America what it is today.
St. Valentine Day
The Roman Empire, which, in 270 A.D., was nearing the end of its domination as a world power, had to maintain a massive army to defend its borders. Claudius decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives or families, so he outlawed marriage for young men.
Valentine was a Catholic priest who considered the ban on marriage to be unjust, and he secretly performed marriages for any young couples who requested it. When Claudius discovered Valentine breaking the law, he had him arrested and sent to prison.
The Catholic Church made Valentine a saint for his sacrifice, and chose February 14, the date of his death, as the day on which he would be honored. Centuries later, in medieval England and France, people believed that February 14 was the day that many birds, returning for the spring, picked their mates.
English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, first put the link between St. Valentine’s Day and romance in writing, with a poem composed in the late 1300s. The fanciful poem has birds discussing everything from politics to love, and ends in praise of Saint Valentine, relating Valentine’s Day to the date the birds would choose their mates, and to the coming of warmer weather. To paraphrase:
Saint Valentine, who sits aloft,
The birds all sing for your sake,
We welcome summer, with its sun so soft,
This winter weather to off-shake
From that brief mention in just one poem from more than 600 years ago, the tradition started. By the mid-1700s, people regularly made and exchanged Valentine’s Day cards, a custom which became popular in America in the mid-1800s when Esther Howland started the New England Valentine Company, and began mass-producing Valentine cards. Today, 180 million cards are exchanged each year, and it’s all based on an incident that happened over 1,700 years ago