Black History Month was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a widely known African-American historian, educator, publisher and scholar.
It began as Negro History Week, and in 1976 became a monthlong celebration in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
The designation of a week, then a month, of celebrating black history was met with skepticism during that time and even today by some people. Some still cannot understand why a month was set aside to celebrate a specific race.
As an African-American woman, it’s difficult for me to understand anyone having a problem with it. Woodson contended that the teaching of black history “was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within a broader society.”
He further stated that, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Karen Johns, a retired elementary kindergarten teacher from the Omaha Public Schools with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education, grasped the importance of black history in the lives of African-Americans at a very young age.
“I will never forget as a little girl in fifth grade when the teacher assigned us to do reports on historical people, I wanted to do a report on someone ‘colored,’ ” she said. “African-Americans at that time were referred to as ‘colored.’ The teacher told me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing ‘colored people’ did worth writing a report on. Nor was there anything about ‘colored’ people in the school library.”
When Johns went home and told her mother what the teacher had said, her mother was upset. Johns is a third-generation teacher, and still has her grandmother’s degree, which is over 100 years old. Her late mother, Bernice Grice Johns, was one of the few African-American librarians in the Omaha Public Library system. She was the first African-American to be a department head (in the Business and Industrial Department, later called Business and Technology) at the W. Dale Clark Library.
“My mother taught me to be proud of being ‘colored,’ and there were many ‘colored’ people who did great things and contributed to society,” Johns said. “She wrote a note to the teacher telling her we would indeed locate positive information about ‘colored’ people to write a report on.”
Johns said the library, at 19th and Harney Streets at that time, stored the Negro history books in the basement.
“I had a field day looking at all the unsung books about ‘colored’ people when my mother took me to that department in the public library,” Johns said. “My very first report was on Daniel Hale Williams.”
According to history, Williams founded Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first nonsegregated hospital in the United States. He also performed heart surgery. One patient lived 20 years after what was called “the first successful heart surgery.”
For many years, Johns has been an avid reader of black history books. She purchased “Portraits in Color,” a book about famous “colored” women. After that, she became a collector and reader of anything and everything about African-Americans.
Her hobby extended into collecting author-autographed books. Traveling family members and friends have purchased books for her autographed by African-American authors.
All of us who have been to Johns’ home can attest to the many books on Negro history, black history and black studies placed neatly in her bookcases, each one having been read and treasured.
Johns’ love for black history is helping others in a great way. She is a part-time adjunct professor at the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She teaches Introduction to Black Studies, African-American History to 1865 and Contemporary African-American Literature.
Dr. Cynthia Robinson, department chair and associate professor at UNO’s Department of Black Studies, said, “Johns is everything an instructor should be. She’s student-centered, she cares about the discipline of black studies and does everything in her power to connect students to the studies. She is a very popular instructor, and students respond to her well.”
Johns, a winner of the Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award in 1999 and a UNO Hollie Bethel Distinguished Alumni honoree in 2000, not only reads a lot, but also keeps busy in other pursuits. She belongs to New Life Presbyterian Church, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and other civic and social organizations. She loves to cook and entertain. And, of course, she is in a book club called Read Sista.
She certainly demonstrated by all her accomplishments that she is one of many “colored people” worthy to write about.