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The Origins of Black History Month

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The Origins of Black History Month

Black History Month poster of Billie Holiday.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In the 21st century, many Americans question the need for Black History Month. Some argue that black history should be celebrated year-round, as it’s no different from American history generally. Others resent the month because they feel it singles out African Americans in ways that other racial groups are not. In fact, cultural observance months for Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans take place every year as well—and have for years. Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson did not spearhead a time of year to recognize the achievements of blacks to exclude others but because the history books of his era largely ignored the contributions people of color made to U.S. Society. Reflecting on the origin of Black History Month will help naysayers clear up misconceptions about its founding and purpose.

Recognizing African Americans

Well versed in the achievements of African Americans, Woodson wanted to publicize their contributions to the world. He accomplished this goal by establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and announcing the creation of Negro History Week in a 1926 press release. “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements,” he reportedly told students of Hampton Institute. Blacks and socially conscious whites embraced the idea, founding black history clubs and teaching young people about the event. The wealthy even donated funds to spread awareness about black history.

Why February?

For years, African Americans have jokingly questioned the fact that Black History Month takes place in the shortest month of the year. The decision to celebrate African-American history in February was not an attempt to shortchange blacks but arrived at because one week in that month encompasses the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, which fell on the 14th and the 12th, respectively. The African-American Douglass distinguished himself as a leading abolitionist, while Lincoln, of course, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That document allowed enslaved blacks to live as free men and women. Without the activism of abolitionists such as Douglass, Woodson, born to slaves, may have never received the opportunity to read or write, let alone earn degrees from academic institutions as prestigious as the University of Chicago and Harvard University.

The black community had long celebrated the birthdays of Douglass and Lincoln. “Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the black past,” according to Daryl Michael Scott, a history professor at Howard University. “He was asking the public to extend their study of black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success.”

From Negro History Week to Black History Month

Woodson died in 1950, but Negro History Week celebrations showed no signs of slowing down. By then several city mayors recognized the week. To boot, the burgeoning civil rights movement helped bolster interest in black life and the role African Americans played in making the U.S. the world superpower it is today. Given this, by the time the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the federal government decided to turn Negro History Week into Black History Month. That year, President Gerald R. Ford told Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The U.S. government has recognized Black History Month ever year since. Before his death, Woodson is said to have expressed hope for a Negro History Year.

How Black History Month Is Celebrated

There’s no shortage of ways to celebrate black history. Teachers give lessons to students about important African-American historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and the Tuskegee Airmen. Bookstores highlight the works of black poets and writers. Meanwhile, galleries display the work of black artists. Museums feature exhibitions with African-American themes, and theaters present plays with African-American subject matter. African-American churches celebrate the month with a slew of events that raise awareness about the achievements of blacks in the U.S. Some blacks view the month as a time to reflect on slavery, the civil rights movement, the black power movement and the best ways to lift up the African-American community today.

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