It Started With Us: The True Origins Of Black History Month

Photo: Getty Images

Black History Month is here!

A time to celebrate and acknowledge the many contributions that African Americans have had, and continue to do so, in America. While many people honor the annual observance by highlighting memorable figures in history, the origins of BHM are still unclear to many. One Twitter user tweeted:

“The only black history history books taught us was systemic racism. the only black historical figures history books taught us was rosa parks & MLK.”

Another tweeter shared:

“Raise your hand if your history books didn’t teach you about “black Wall Street”

In honor of Black History Month, take a look at how generations of African Americans began shining a light on their history and spreading the knowledge for the world to see.

How It Started

Historian Carter G. Woodson
Photo: Bettmann

The origins of BHM can be traced all the way back the year 1915 when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — also known as ASNLH.

National Negro History Week

Created in 1926 by Woodson and the ASNLH, Woodson felt deeply that at least one week would allow for the general movement to become something annually celebrated. According to the famed historian, the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today?” – (Woodson 1929)

Why February

Woodson reportedly elected the month of February because this marked two dates that were already widely celebrated by Black Americans—the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

Black History Month: United States

Barack Obama At Occidental College
Photo: Archive Photos

In February 1969, Black students and educators at Kent State University proposed that Negro History Week become Black History Month. The following year, the first ever BHM celebration took place at Kent State from January 2 to February 28, 1970.

Black History Month… “Officially”

Throughout the early 70’s, Black History Month began garnering widespread attention; being celebrated across the United States in educational institutions, centers of Black culture and community centers. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the celebration became in the American psyche, after President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month while honoring the the United States Bicentennial. In his “Message on the Observance of Black History Month” Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The Follow-Up

Following Ford’s declaration, many other countries followed suit, including the UK and Canada. As with many new things, Black History Month didn’t thrive without a bit of controversy. Many felt that the month of February was too short to honor the contributions of Black Americans to the nation; while others feared that BHM could reduce complex historical figures to overly simplified objects of hero worship.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDs50IVOmEI?feature=oembed]

Despite the many ups and downs that Black History Month has faced, just like Black people, the celebration is still standing and getting better with knowledge and time.

Happy Black History Month!

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