Black History Month

What You Should Know About the Origins of Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual celebration held every February to honour the contributions and achievements of African Americans throughout U.S. history. The event grew out of Black History Week, which was started in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian and scholar. Over time, the celebration expanded to become Black History Month. Here’s some key information about the history and origins of this important event.

The Founding of Negro History Week

The tradition of Black History Month first began as Negro History Week in 1926. It was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, along with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).

Woodson was the son of former slaves and he understood the importance of Black Americans knowing their racial history and roots. He feared that most schools and textbooks largely ignored, overlooked or misrepresented the achievements and contributions of African Americans. To address this, he conceived of the idea of Negro History Week as a way to promote and celebrate Black history and achievement.

Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthdays of two famous Americans: President Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14). He hoped aligning the week with these dates would bolster attention and significance.

The first Negro History Week was announced in February 1926. It became an enormous success nationwide as Black communities embraced the celebration through schools, clubs and organizations. The week encouraged African Americans to learn about their own unique stories and study their long, rich history.

Expanding to Black History Month

Woodson’s original vision was for Negro History Week to encourage the organized and thorough study of Black history year-round – not just for one isolated week. In the early decades, mayors of cities and towns would issue yearly proclamations and deliver speeches to recognize Negro History Week.

In the 1960s, thanks to the civil rights movement, a growing African American consciousness led more people to advocate expanding the week into a month-long celebration of Black history and culture. College campuses played a key role in spurring this change.

In 1969, leaders of the Black United Students organization at Kent State University proposed extending the week into a month-long celebration to recognize the full scope of Black history and achievements. In 1970, Kent State’s Black Student Council officially expanded the celebration into Black History Month.

The expansion quickly spread to other colleges, universities, high schools, cities and community organizations. In 1976, on the 50th anniversary of Negro History Week, the Association officially recognized and adopted Black History Month on a national level. Since then, every U.S. president has issued a proclamation honouring Black History Month during February.

Why February Was Chosen

There are several key reasons why February was chosen by Woodson as the anchor point for Negro History Week and later Black History Month:

  • It contained the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, allowing the week to be aligned with these dates.
  • February was chosen because it represented the year when Black people were already celebrating the abolitionist movement and progress.
  • The month was seen as a time for Black communities to focus on their collective histories and achievements.
  • February fell between the major holidays of Christmas and Easter, allowing schools to dedicate teaching time to Black history.
  • The second week of February marked a period between the end of football season and before spring sports began, allowing another opportunity for historical focus.

Ultimately, February was selected due to its unique temporal position on the calendar and connection to key historical figures like Lincoln and Douglass who represented freedom and the fight against oppression.

Growth and Popularity of Black History Month

While begun primarily in the Black community, Black History Month gained broader popularity and recognition in American society throughout the late 20th century.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month and called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

While Negro History Week was originally conceived to encourage the coordinated, yearlong study of Black history in public schools, by the 21st century, Black History Month had evolved into a diverse national celebration in February when the country as a whole focused on African American history and culture.

Today, Black History Month is an opportunity for all Americans – regardless of background – to learn about and appreciate the incredible contributions of Black people who have shaped the nation. The month is marked by cultural events, educational activities, art exhibits, speeches, recitals and more.

From its origins in 1926, the celebration has grown to become a powerful annual reflection on the truth that Black history is American history. Its role in expanding understanding and advancing racial justice continues to inspire new generations.

Key Facts About Black History Month

  • Black History Month originated as Negro History Week in February 1926, founded by historian Carter G. Woodson.
  • It was expanded to Black History Month in 1976 on the 50th anniversary of Negro History Week.
  • Woodson chose February to link the week to the birthdays of Lincoln and Douglass.
  • Every president since Gerald Ford has issued a proclamation honouring Black History Month.
  • The month provides a focused opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the history, culture and contributions of African Americans.
  • It is now observed annually across the United States by individuals, schools, organizations and institutions.
  • The month helps promote understanding, dialogue and progress related to racial justice and equity.

Why Black History Deserves Focus

Some people wonder if we still need a special month dedicated to Black history in modern society. Others argue that Black history should be incorporated more systematically into textbooks and classroom lessons throughout the year.

However, most historians and education specialists agree that Black History Month continues to play a profoundly important role. A specific block of time devoted to concentrated focus and celebration provides opportunities that would likely not happen otherwise.

Black History Month is crucial because it counteracts centuries of overlooked or misrepresented history and allows people to learn about under-appreciated heroes, stories and milestones. It also sparks important discussions about prejudice, discrimination and inequality.

Many argue Black History Month is as relevant as ever and the dedicated emphasis helps build cultural awareness and heal social divides. While more progress is needed, the special month continues to enlighten and inspire.

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