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PennLive Highlights Milton Hershey School Staff in Black History Month Essay

By Matthew Pierce, Senior Divison Social Studies Teacher, and Nate Martin, Head of Senior Division

February is Black History Month. It’s known as a time to celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of Black Americans who helped shape this nation. But who among us knows its origins?

In February 1975, President Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by Black citizens.” The following year, the country recognized Black History Week as Black History Month. But the tradition began decades before that by American historian and scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) founder and the second Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Seeing the contributions of Black Americans often overlooked or suppressed, Woodson developed a weeklong celebration in 1926 to educate more people about Black history and culture. He chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Over time, the week grew in scale. From the 1940s through 1960s, it evolved into a month through the efforts of more Americans focused on inclusion. Woodson became known as the “father of Black history” for his work chronicling unbiased accounts that acknowledged Black people’s roles and influence in America and encouraged the serious study of Black history.

Some people question the rationale behind Black History Month – what about the other 11 months of the year? Woodson’s goal was never to confine the achievements, struggles, and contributions of Black Americans. He envisioned it as an opportunity to showcase the importance of Black history throughout the year. His intent, and life’s purpose, was to focus on the parts of American history that were not being told, thereby broadening the nation’s consciousness.

At Milton Hershey School, we are building on a commitment to inclusiveness rooted in our school’s values, explicitly mutual respect for everyone. We launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion framework years ago when MHS made the conscious decision to do more and to do better. That framework has guided the creation of professional development and learning experiences, enhanced curriculum, and expanded student programming. Staff across campus collaborate year-round as members of our DEI team. They also work with students to ensure the representation of all voices. Together, they identify strengths, areas where we can grow, and opportunities to promote equity and inclusion within our workplace and student experience.

Black History Month, and other celebrations like it, plays a role in ensuring the experiences of all Americans—past and present—are valued, acknowledged, and shared.

MHS teachers, including social studies teachers, use an approach in our curriculum that embraces diverse voices. Throughout the school year, they explore the perspectives of people from different races, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and more while studying any period of history. Students investigate multiple viewpoints and engage in conversations that enhance their critical thinking skills—while still displaying civic virtues and respect for one another. This way, learning about influential Black Americans and culture isn’t reserved for a single time of the year. For younger students, we expanded our social studies curriculum to include culture—learning what culture consists of and giving students the opportunity and safe space to share details and pride in their own culture.

American history is Black history. Black history is American history. It is intertwined as our collective identity. The past, in its entirety, has brought us to where we are today and what we learn from our shared past informs and inspires our actions moving forward.

We all play a role in helping students gain a more holistic understanding of American history. February is Black History Month, which may lead some educators to realize we can collectively do more to incorporate Black history into curriculum throughout the year. A great place to start is with inquiry. Students need to see the perspective of history that makes them curious to learn more. Asking thought-provoking questions can help students develop their critical thinking skills, spark insightful dialogue, uncover new perspectives, inspire creativity, and encourage meaningful growth—all crucial skills to democracy and civic engagement. In addition, asking questions related to something students already know can encourage them to pursue more knowledge. For example, we know about Rosa Parks, but what happened in 1916 involving buses that had an impact on generations of Black Americans? We can bring greater awareness to lesser-known events by connecting them to parts of history that are more widely known.

As educators and administrators, it is not our role to interpret history for our students. On the contrary, our responsibility lies in sparking students’ curiosity for history, including parts that have been overlooked or marginalized, so they can dig deeper, draw their own conclusions, and better understand that history doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For many students, discovering the history of diverse people and lesser-known events helps them see themselves in the influential people of the past and realize they too can lead change that shapes America now and for years to come.

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Milton Hershey School does not discriminate in admissions or other programs and services on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, sex, religious creed or disability. Read important MHS policies on equal opportunity and diversity, equal employment opportunity, and more.