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What Is Black History Month and How Did It Begin?

Although Black History Month is observed each February in the United States, many people are not familiar with how or why it was created. To understand Black History Month, you have to look back to early 20th-century historian Carter G. Woodson. As the son of formerly enslaved people and the second African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, Woodson was thoroughly familiar with how Black Americans were being left out of the narrative of American History.

Woodson’s desire to correct this glaring oversight lead to the development of Negro History Week in 1926. This week served as a prototype of sorts, and would later grow into the Black History Month we know today. And while people often joke about Black History Month being regulated to the shortest month of the year, Woodson made a calculated decision to begin Negro History Week in February.

The Origins of Black History Month

First, Woodson Developed Negro History Week

In 1915, Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History or ASALH). The idea for an organization devoted to Black history came to Woodson as he was talking about the release of the racist film “The Birth of a Nation.” Discussing it with a group of Black men at a YMCA in Chicago, Woodson convinced the group that Black Americans needed an organization that would strive for a balanced history.

The organization began publishing its flagship journal—The Journal of Negro History—in 1916, and 10 years later, Woodson came up with a plan for a week of activities and commemorations devoted to Black American history. Woodson chose the week of February 7, 1926, for the first Negro History Week for its symbolism. It included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), celebrated for the Emancipation Proclamation that freed many enslaved people, and the abolitionist and formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). As reported by Oprah Magazine, both of these men were already celebrated by many people in the Black community and it made sense for the ASALH to further solidify that recognition by building a holiday around that week.

Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would encourage better relations between Black and White people in the United States as well as inspire young Black Americans to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of their ancestors. In his book “The Mis-Education of the Negro” (1933), Woodson lamented, “Of the hundreds of Negro high schools recently examined by an expert in the United States Bureau of Education only eighteen offer a course taking up the history of the Negro, and in most of the Negro colleges and universities where the Negro is thought of, the race is studied only as a problem or dismissed as of little consequence.”

Thanks to Negro History Week, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History began to receive requests for more accessible articles. As a result, in 1937 the organization began publishing the Negro History Bulletin aimed at Black teachers who wanted to incorporate Black history into their lessons.

Then, Black History Month Was Born

Black Americans quickly took up Negro History Week, and by the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, American educators, both White and Black, were observing Negro History Week. At the same time, mainstream historians had begun to expand the American historical narrative to include Black Americans (as well as women and other previously ignored groups). In 1976, as the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial, the ASALH expanded the traditional week-long celebration of Black history to a month, and Black History Month was born.

That same year, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month, but it was President Carter who officially recognized Black History Month in 1978. With the federal government’s blessing, Black History Month became a regular event in American schools.

Trying to capture the entire history of a people in a single month is obviously impossible. But each year, the ASALH gave Negro History Week themes, and that tradition has extended into Black History Month to help narrow people’s focus to particular aspects of Black history. In 2021, the theme is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity”, and the theme for 2022 will be “Black Health and Wellness”. In recent years, Black History Month’s themes have included:

  • 2014 – Civil Rights in America
  • 2015 – A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture
  • 2016 – Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memory
  • 2017 – The Crisis in Black Education
  • 2018 – African Americans in Times of War
  • 2019 – Black Migrations
  • 2020 – African Americans and the Vote

Learn More About Ongoing Movements Surrounding Black History

There are a number of organizations that continue to work within a broader movement to capture and help people learn more about Black History. Of course, Woodson’s own organization, the ASALH, is still active today. You can also check out resources like:

The Zinn Education ProjectThis organization promotes the teaching of people’s history. In other words, the Zinn Education Project pushes at the boundaries of what is considered history, so students are receiving more accurate and complex reflection of events than what is often found in classroom textbooks. Its website includes free teaching materials that can be organized by time period, theme, resource type, and grade level.

Center for Racial Justice in Education: This organization is dedicated to “train[ing] and empower[ing] educators to dismantle patterns of racism and injustice in schools and communities.” It has a number of free resources, including a Black History month guide that is designed for both educators and families.

The NEA Black Caucus: Founded in 1970, the NEA Black Caucus defines its mission as “to advance the global Black community by developing leaders, informing policy, and educating the public.” The organization hosts an annual leadership conference.