The Origins of Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the essential role of African Americans in United States history and commemorate African American achievement. It is important to take a moment to understand how and why Black History Month came to be.

 

Widely regarded as the “Father of Black History,” African American historian Carter G. Woodson made it his life’s mission to remedy the dearth of information about black historical achievements and black contributions in the making of the United States as we know it today. The son of former slaves, Woodson felt a proper education was vital in understanding and upholding the right to freedom, noting: “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.” In 1912, Woodson graduated from Harvard University with a PhD in history, the second African American ever to obtain a doctorate from the school. (The first was W.E.B. Du Bois, who graduated in 1895.)

Carter G. Woodson

 

Given his academic focus, Woodson was acutely aware of both the distinct lack of attention given to black history and the potential consequences this could hold. Consequently, in September 1915, he joined forces with Jesse E. Mooreland, a prominent minister at the time, to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Today, this organization is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

 

In 1926, under Woodson’s guidance the ASNLH sponsored a national “Negro History Week” and chose the second week of February for the event, since the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14) are celebrated during this time. Woodson, together with the ASNLH, printed and distributed photographs, books, historical bibliographies, and other literature that suggested different ways to celebrate, such as parades featuring notable African American figures, banquets, speeches, poetry readings, and lectures.

 

The week then began to gather momentum. US cities and towns held various celebrations, founded history clubs, and hosted events, while teachers enthusiastically gathered relevant materials and dedicated coursework to the occasion. Soon, the Departments of Education for various states like Delaware, North Carolina, and Virginia partnered with the ASNLH to promote the event.

 

Over the next few decades, mayors throughout the country established proclamations that recognized “Negro History Week” every year. In 1969, African American professors and members of the Black United Students group at Kent State University proposed extending the week to an entire month, and, in 1970, students and faculty celebrated the first Black History Month. Other colleges and universities soon followed suit.

 

On the fiftieth anniversary, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling on American citizens to seize the “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since this announcement, every US president has put forth proclamations that officially endorse the ASALH’s annual theme for Black History Month.

 

Since 1928, each of these weeks—and later, months—has been oriented around a specific theme in order to even further direct the attention of the public. Such themes have ranged from “Civilization: A World Achievement” to “African Background Outlined” to “African Art, Music, Literature: A Valuable Cultural Experience.” ASALH provides the full list of these themes for further exploration. This year, the theme for Black History Month is Black Migrations, which, as the ASALH describes, specifically highlights the “movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.”

 

Today, Black History Month is celebrated throughout the United States in schools and communities through lesson plans and classroom activities, history clubs, lectures, performances, museum exhibitions, and so much more. Starting in 1987, other countries also began celebrating Black History Month: Canada in February, and the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland in October. Be sure to research what events are being held in your area for Black History Month so you and your family can participate!

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