Every February, we celebrate Black History Month in the United States and Canada. In the words of The Wall Street Journal, it's a time to let “the culture and contributions of African Americans take center stage.” But what is Black History Month? How did it begin? And why do we celebrate it?
The observance that would become Black History Month traces its origins all the way back to 1926, when author, historian, and journalist Carter G. Woodson proposed “Negro History Week” to take place annually on the second week in February. This week was chosen because it falls on the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809) and Frederick Douglass (born c. February 1817 or 1818).
One of the first scholars to seriously study the African diaspora, Woodson was the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Chicago and has been called “the Father of Black History.” The official mission of the ASALH, which still exists today, is to “promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture to the global community.”
Writing in his 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson made the rationale behind the week very clear. “If a race has no history,” he wrote, “it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” He envisioned Negro History Week as a tool to help the Black community learn about and take pride in their history, as well as educate others.
Unfortunately, though perhaps not unsurprisingly, Negro History Week was not an immediate success. According to the April 1926 issue of The Journal of Negro History, a quarterly academic journal that's still active today as The Journal of African American History, the first annual Negro History Week only received buy-in from schools in North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia, along with city schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, it was a start, and Woodson declared it “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association.”
For much of its early history, Negro History Week was focused primarily on education and teaching about the lives and accomplishments of Black Americans in the nation’s public schools. By 1929, in an article titled “Negro History Week: The Fourth Year,” The Journal of Negro History reported that literature associated with the event had been distributed to teachers in “every state with considerable Negro population,” with only a couple of exceptions.
Racism, Woodson wrote, “is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” To correct this flawed perception, he saw the educational efforts of his movement as paramount.
Progress was slow going early on, but Woodson and the Association took heart and persevered. Their early efforts countered the proliferation of the myth of the so-called “lost cause of the Confederacy". This ahistorical, revisionist claim insisted that slaves were treated well and attributed the cause of the Civil War not to slavery, but to northern aggression and state's rights. This kind of historical negationism was popular in the 1930s, but scholars like Woodson refused to let it control the narrative around Black history
Despite this resistance, the popularity of Negro History Week continued to grow, with banquets, exhibitions, lectures, parades, poetry readings, and speeches all held in its honor as mayors in cities and towns across the country gradually endorsed it as a civic holiday. It would not receive nationwide recognition for many decades, however.
In 1969, Black educators and students at Kent State University first proposed expanding Negro History Week into the month-long celebration that would become Black History Month. The first such event was held the following year, spanning more than a month, from January 2 until February 28, with many of the earliest events taking place in Kuumba House, the Black culture center run by the Black United Students of Kent State.
Within just a few years, Black History Month had spread to educational institutions and Black cultural centers across the country. In 1976, President Gerald Ford became the first U.S. president to recognize the observation during the United States Bicentennial, when he called upon American citizens to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, every U.S. president has officially recognized February as Black History Month, usually calling out a specific theme for the month. The theme for Black History Month in 2022 is “Black Health and Wellness,” focusing on the “legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birthworkers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora.”
In the years since 1976, celebration of Black History Month has spread beyond the United States. In Britain, Black History Month is celebrated in October. It was first recognized there in 1987, on the 150th anniversary of the Caribbean emancipation. Black History Month was first officially recognized in Canada in 1995, where it is celebrated in February, as it is in the United States.
Over the course of the last few decades, Black History Month has expanded considerably beyond its initial conception as an educational tool, to become something celebrated by individuals, corporations, and cultural institutions. In 2018, Instagram introduced Black History Month programming, while a 2020 article in Forbes noted that “much of corporate America is commemorating” the event, listing a wide variety of major companies including Coca-Cola, Google, Target, and UPS.
Such mainstream recognition has not come without pushback, however. While some critics argue that improved civil rights have rendered Black History Month unnecessary, others wish that Black history was respected and celebrated year-round. As actor Morgan Freeman once put it, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”
His sentiment echoed Woodson's call to action. “It is not so much a Negro History Week,” Woodson wrote, “as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”
Featured image: Scurlock Studio Records via Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture