The History Behind Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual observance during the month of February in the United States. Black history had barely begun to be studied-or even documented-when the tradition was created. This celebration calls on Americans to reflect on African Americans and the important roles they played in shaping our nation’s history.

The man behind the holiday is known as Carter G. Woodson. He is considered a pioneer in the study of the history of African Americans and is given most of the credit for Black History Month. Woodson was the son of former slaves and spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. He received his education during a four-month term, which was customary for black schools at that time. Woodson entered high school at 19 years old, after having taught himself both mathematics and English fundamentals. He completed his four-year high school curriculum in two years, then went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. He also earned a doctorate from Harvard later on.

Woodson took on the challenge of writing African Americans into the history of the nation. He was motivated to do so after coming to the realization that America’s African-American population was largely ignored in history textbooks, and when black people did appear in these textbooks, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they had at the time. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and founded the group’s widely respected publication, which was called the Journal of Negro History. Woodson also developed Negro History Week in 1962. The first Negro History Week received little enthusiasm, but gained the cooperation of the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia, as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He strongly believed that "the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization." Woodson has been called the Father of Black History for his work.

Negro History Week later expanded into Black History Month in 1976. Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and students at Kent State University in February of 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from January 2, 1970 until February 28, 1970. Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country in educational institutions and centers of black culture and community centers. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Carter G. Woodson chose the second week of February for his celebration of black history because it marks the birthdays of two men who had a significant impact on the black American population: Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader. Though Douglass’ birthday was not known, he celebrated it on the 14th of February. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished slavery in America’s confederate states. Lincoln was born on the 12th of February.

Besides Douglass and Lincoln, February has much more to show for its significance in black American history. For example, important civil rights leader and co-founder of the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization in the United States, W.E.B. DuBois, was born on the 23rd of February. On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed, which granted black citizens the right to vote. On February 12, 1909, the NAACP was founded by a group of concerned black and white citizens in New York City.

Black History Month has evolved from being nationwide to worldwide. It helps to bring awareness to all people and their significance to our history. By celebrating this month, historic leaders of the black community are being honored for the sacrifices and suffering they endured in the fight for racial equality, and provides an opportunity to highlight the best of black history and culture.