Celebrating Black History

Celebrating Black History

Two important birthdays helped organizers choose February as the time to celebrate African Americans

FEBRUARY 01, 2016
SAUL LOEB—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks with students about Black History Month alongside a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 2014.

In the early 1900s, Carter G. Woodson, an African-American historian, was frustrated. He did not feel that the history and accomplishments of black people were being taught or celebrated in the United States. While working to address this problem, Woodson set the foundation for what would become today’s national Black History Month. It is observed each February.

Woodson was studying history at Harvard University, in Massachusetts. He saw that black people were not well represented in history books. Black history was also not discussed in his classes. According to the way many historians taught the nation’s past, African Americans were barely part of the story.

This portrait, taken in the 1910s, shows American historian and educator Carter Godwin Woodson, who organized the first black history week.

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This portrait, taken in the 1910s, shows American historian and educator Carter Godwin Woodson, who organized the first black history week.

Woodson knew this was not true. So in 1915, he and Jesse E. Moorland, a black minister and community leader, founded what would become the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH. The organization would promote studying black history and celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans.

Spotlight on Black History

In 1926, Woodson and the ASALH launched a black history week to bring attention to their mission and help schools organize lessons on the topic. Woodson chose the second week in February. That week held two very important dates: Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14 and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. Douglass was a famous African-American writer, speaker, and anti-slavery activist. Lincoln was the U.S. president who made the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the nation’s slaves. Both were major figures in black history, and particularly in the fight against slavery. Honoring the two with a week celebrating African Americans made sense.

The celebration of black history week spread quickly, as the ASALH tells it. There was high demand for teaching materials. People even formed black history clubs. But, though a newfound understanding of black culture and literature was spreading among many people, the idea of expanding the week to a month did not come until several decades later.

Frederick Douglass was a former slave turned abolitionist, writer, and speaker.

UNIVERSAL IMAGE GROUP/GETTY IMAGES
Frederick Douglass was a former slave turned abolitionist, writer, and speaker.

By the mid-1960s, the most popular textbook for eighth-grade U.S. history classes mentioned only two black people in the entire 100 years since the Civil War. This problem could no longer be ignored. It was in that decade that colleges and universities across the country transformed the week into a Black History Month on campus.

A number of mayors had already adopted the celebration as a town or citywide event by the time President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance in 1976.

“In celebrating Black History Month,” Ford said in his message, “we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Now, Black History Month is celebrated in February in schools and communities all over the country.

Presidents have issued national decrees with each year’s theme since the 1970s. African American History Month’s 2016 theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”

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