This month, as the nation does every year, we celebrate Black History Month, our way of showing respect and recognition for the hard work of and sacrifices made by African Americans.
In spite of a painful and unjust American history that saw Black people bought and sold into slavery and ongoing challenges that continue to this day, Blacks have remained strong and we have made countless contributions that range from innovations in science and medicine to technology and education. And, with the election of President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, we are still completing seemingly extraordinary and impressive firsts.
But, why is the shortest month of the year Black History Month? It began with Harvard University-educated Carter G. Woodson, who is credited with creating Black History Month. Woodson got the idea in 1915 after attending a celebration in Illinois for the 50th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which under Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, abolished slavery in 1863 in the Confederate states that seceded from the U.S.: Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. It wasn’t until two years later on June 19, 1865, which is when Juneteenth is celebrated, that all people held as property in the United States were officially free.
The festivities honoring the proclamation lasted for three weeks, with various exhibits depicting events in African American culture. In 1915, after seeing this display, Woodson decided to form what is now named the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), in order to encourage the study of the accomplishments made by Black Americans.
After Woodson wrote The Journal of Negro History in 1916, which chronicled the overlooked achievements of African Americans, he sought to amplify Black people’s success and spread his findings to a wider audience. Through community outreach, he encouraged his fraternity Omega Psi Phi to promote his work. In 1924, the fraternity responded by creating “Negro Achievement Week,” and February was selected to align with President Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th and Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14th.
Two years later, despite Omega Psi Phi’s efforts, Woodson still wanted to make a bigger impact. So in 1926, he and the ASALH officially declared the second week of February to be “Negro History Week,” announcing the news through a press release.
Both Lincoln and Douglass had long been celebrated by the Black community in the years before “Negro History Week” was created. Since his assassination, Lincoln’s birthday was honored by both African Americans and Republicans alike, so the ASALH only solidified this tradition. And Douglass was already revered as a change-making abolitionist and orator whose legacy would now be cemented with festivities that honored the people he fought so hard for.
In the 50 years that followed clubs, schools, and communities across the country began taking part in the week-long celebration. Slowly, more and more U.S. cities declared official recognition of “Negro History Week.” Particularly in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, with wider public knowledge of the trials and triumphs of African Americans, a mere seven days turned into a month-long recognition.
“In the 1940s, efforts began slowly within the Black community to expand the study of Black history in the schools. In the South, Black teachers often taught Negro History as a supplement to United States history,” Scott says. “During the civil rights movement in the South, the Freedom Schools incorporated Black history into the curriculum to advance social change. The Negro History movement was an intellectual insurgency that was part of every larger effort to transform race relations.”
Celebrating Black History Month
Consequentially, the ASALH expanded the recognition to Black History Month. To solidify this change, in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February “Black History Month” in a commemorative speech. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In the years following Ford’s speech, congress passed a law in 1986 that deemed February “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton issued their own proclamations recognizing it as a national observance, and every POTUS has issued one annually since 1996.
But as time goes on, just like Woodson’s idea of highlighting people of color went from a single organization to an entire month of recognition, before his death in 1950, Woodson himself wished to see the acknowledgment of African Americans’ past become a regular daily occurrence rather than be relegated to a single month.