The History of Black History Month

It was summer of 1915 in Chicago when Carter G. Woodson, University of Chicago alumnus, arrived from Washington, D.C. to attend a state-sponsored Illinois celebration marking fifty years post-emancipation. Black people from across the country came to see exhibits showcasing progress since slavery’s end. Woodson, who had earned a Harvard doctorate three years prior, presented a black history display among others at the Coliseum, site of the 1912 Republican convention. Despite the venue’s size, a crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside to view the exhibits. Motivated by the event, Woodson, before leaving, decided to promote black history’s scientific study. On September 9th, he and A. L. Jackson, Jesse E. Moorland a prominent minister, along with two others, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) at the Wabash YMCA.

Woodson aimed to disseminate research findings through The Journal of Negro History, established in 1916, encouraging Black civic organizations and his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers to highlight these achievements. In 1924, the fraternity initiated Negro History and Literature Week, later called Negro Achievement Week, to further this cause. Woodson, seeking broader impact, underscored the importance of returning to and drawing inspiration from black history for greater achievements. In 1925, he took it upon himself to both create and popularize knowledge about the black past, announcing the inception of Negro History Week in February 1926.

Choosing February aligned with traditions honoring Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays fall on the 12th and 14th, respectively. This choice built upon existing commemorations within the black community, extending the study of black history beyond the celebration of two individuals to the recognition of a race’s contributions to human civilization. Woodson’s approach was to shift focus from individual greatness to collective achievements, emphasizing the role of the black community in shaping history.

The response to Negro History Week was immediate and widespread, reflecting the “New Negro” era’s racial pride and consciousness. The expansion of black middle-class, urbanization, and industrialization fueled participation in black culture and history. Schools, black history clubs, and even progressive whites engaged in the celebrations, with ASNLH providing resources to support these initiatives. By 1937, Woodson launched the Negro History Bulletin to focus on annual themes, further embedding black history in educational and public consciousness.

Despite challenges from commercialization and trivialization, Woodson remained committed to promoting meaningful celebrations. He envisioned a shift from a week-long observance to a year-round recognition of black history, anticipating a time when an annual celebration wouldn’t be necessary. This vision aligned with broader efforts to integrate black history into educational curriculums and public celebrations, extending beyond Negro History Week.

The Civil Rights Movement further integrated black history into education, with Freedom Schools advancing social change through curriculum that included black history. The transition from Negro History Week to Black History Month began in the 1940s, gaining momentum in the 1960s as African American college students and cultural activists like Fredrick H. Hammaurabi in Chicago advocated for a month-long observance. By 1976, the ASNLH solidified this shift, and since then, every American president has endorsed the annual theme, continuing the legacy of serious study and thoughtful celebration of black history.

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