The history of Black History Month

The history of Black History Month
Source: Bloomberg, Luke Sharrett

What is the meaning behind and the history of Black History Month? Every year in the United States, we mark February as Black History Month, a time when the historical contributions and achievements of African Americans are celebrated. This time is important for communities across the US to recognize all the significant events and people throughout the history of the African diaspora.

It is also a necessary time to reflect upon the whitewashing rampant throughout history education that often still persists today. This whitewashing refers to glossing over the atrocities experienced by nonwhite people throughout history as well as failing to mention significant accomplishments of Black people in the past. We examine the history of Black History Month in February to learn more about the importance of this holiday month.

Black History Month is rooted in history and celebration

Dr. Carter G. Woodson is a main figure in the history of Black History Month. Credited with the inspiration for Black History Month, Woodson’s work and accomplishments directly led to what we now know as the monthlong observance, though he did not live to see it in its modern form.

Dr. Woodson was a trained historian with a Ph.D. from Harvard who also received his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago. In the summer of 1915, he traveled from Washington, D.C. to Chicago for a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation in the US sponsored by the state of Illinois. This celebration attracted thousands of African Americans from across the country to view exhibits highlighting progress made since the end of slavery. After attending this 3-week celebration, Woodson was inspired to found an organization promoting the scientific study of Black life and history. With a few other colleagues, he formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History – now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Upon Dr. Woodson’s urging, Black civic organizations across the country began to promote the findings of the journal published by his newly founded organization. His stated goal was to inspire other Black people to greater achievements by honoring their history. In 1926 the ASALH launched “Negro History Week” to popularize knowledge about the past of Black people in the US and to help school systems coordinate studies around this history. The second week in February was chosen for this observance since it encompassed the birthdays of both Frederic Douglass on February 14 and Abraham Lincoln on February 12.

While the celebration and reverence drove the demand for materials and inspired Black history clubs across the country, it wasn’t until the massive movement for racial equality in the mid-20th century that we started to see a true push for the month-long honorary period we now know.

The history of Black History Month is propelled by the Civil Rights Movement

During the American Civil Rights Movement, Black Americans brought their struggle for social justice to the forefront of American culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans and their allies used peaceful demonstrations and protests as well as heightened social engagement to demand equal rights under the law. This movement came after the first few decades of the 20th century brought more freedom to the community, but this was delivered with accompanying prejudice and violence.

In the US South, these problems were particularly egregious. Jim Crow laws were established that made segregation and treating Black people as second class citizens commonplace and socially acceptable. During this time, Freedom Schools were established in the South to foster political participation among youths in the Black community. In these schools, Black history was celebrated and the curriculum was expanded – in contrast to commonly used US history textbooks, which at the time mentioned very few Black people and often whitewashed over the history of Black experience.

The Civil Rights Movement led to colleges and universities across the US transforming their weeklong observances into month-long celebrations of Black History Month. In 1965 one of the movement’s key accomplishments came as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, outlawing discrimination preventing people from voting – practices which had largely been adopted in the Jim Crow era to suppress the Black vote. By 1976 it was clear that many academic institutions were already honoring this important time, and President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month to be a national observance in the 50th year of its establishment and in America’s bicentennial year.

A truly historical year

Each year since the establishment of Black History Month, US presidents issue national decrees giving a theme to the month. Schools around the country take the month of February to lift up Black figures throughout history by recognizing their lives and contributions to society – achievements that were overlooked for far too long. This year’s theme is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity,” which explores the African diaspora and Black families’ journeys across the country. With the first US Black vice president having recently been inaugurated this year, the celebrations of this February will surely be historic in their own right.

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