The Origin of Black History Month

Every year, the 28 (or 29) days of February are observed as the Black History Month in United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, among other countries. This is a way these countries show respect and gratitude for the hard work and sacrifices made by African Americans. This observance originated in the United States, where it is also known as African American History Month.

Despite a tragic American history that saw African American people enforced into slavery, struggle with racism, fight against segregation policies and police brutality, they have remained strong and prosperous.

Black Americans confront a layered and painful past while making countless cultural contributions. But out of all the calendar markings, why is Black History Month in February? Who started this tradition? Let’s dive into a little history of this month-long observance.

It all started with Carter G Woodson

Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson is credited as the progenitor of Black History Month. According to sources, Woodson got the idea in 1915 after attending a celebration in Illinois for the 50th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which under President Abraham Lincoln, abolished slavery in 1863 in the confederate states that seceded from the US. Two years later, on June 19, 1865, all individuals considered as property in the United States were officially free!

In 1915, after witnessing these festivities, which lasted for three weeks with various exhibits highlighting important events in African American culture, Woodson decided to form what is now named the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), in order to encourage the study of the achievements and contributions made by Black Americans and Black communities.

Then it became a week-long event

After Woodson wrote The Journal of Negro History in 1916, which documented the disregarded achievements of African Americans, he sought to right the wrong and amplify Black people’s success and spread his findings to a wider audience. Woodson leveraged his community outreach to encourage his fraternity Omega Psi Phi to promote his work. In 1924, the fraternity responded by creating “Negro Achievement Week”.

Negro History Week

But Woodson wanted to make a bigger impact. So, in 1926, he along with ASALH, declared the second week of February as the ‘Negro History Week,” announcing the news through a press release. “This week was celebrated for years and was so chosen because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th, and Frederick Douglass on February 14th,” says Zebulon Miletsky, the co-chair of marketing and PR committee for ASALH.

Lincoln and Douglass have long been revered heroes of the Black community in the years leading up to ‘Negro History Week’. Since the assassination of President Lincoln, his birthday was honored by both African Americans and Republicans alike, so the ASALH only solidified this tradition. And Douglas was already a revered hero and a change making abolitionist and orator whose legacy would now be cemented with festivities that honored the people he fought so hard for.

President Gerald Ford declares Black History Month officially

In the 50 years that followed, more and more clubs, schools, and communities across the country began joining in on the week-long celebration. Slowly, more and more US cities declared official recognition of ‘Negro History Week’. Particularly in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, with wider public knowledge of the trials and triumphs of African Americans, a mere seven-day celebration turned into a month-long recognition.

To solidify this change, in 1976, President Ford declared February as ‘Black History Month’ in a commemorative speech.

The celebrations thrive on as the world honors great individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and many others. In the years following Ford’s speech, congress passed a law in 1986 that deemed February as ‘National Black (Afro-American) History Month’. Such is the history and origin of the Black History Month.

– By Aditya Umale