The History of Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual month-long celebration that takes place every February in the United States as well as Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere. Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight the contributions of prominent Black figures in history as well as to celebrate Black culture and spotlight the important role of Black history in the broader narrative of American history.

The History of Black History Month

Black History Month is generally a popular and widely observed celebration throughout the U.S. and beyond, especially in the context of education. There are critics, however, who argue that the imperative to highlight the historical contributions of Black Americans should not be confined to a single month, but should instead be considered a key pillar of education at all times. We believe there is value both in the month-long celebration of Black History and in taking a more concerted effort to spotlight Black history, culture, and achievements no matter the time of year.

This is the spirit that informs our Influential Black Scholars series, which emphasizes the remarkable accomplishments and achievements of Black influencers in every discipline over the last 30 years. Check out our Influential Black Scholars series for a look at top figures in the academic fields shaping the world around us today.

Or read on for a brief look back at the origins of Black History Month…

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Negro History Week

According to History.com, the roots of Black History Month can be traced to 1915, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).” The group declared its dedication to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.

The year of this association’s birth is of no small relevance. It was this same year that the film Birth of a Nation hit theaters and, in doing so, widely glorified the Ku Klux Klan and the slave-holding South. Birth of a Nation offered a fictional idealization of Ol’ Dixie, conveying an image of slaves living in relative contentment during the glory days before the Southern way of life was violently wrested away by Northern aggression. Woodson was particularly compelled to oppose the mythology promoted by such films by telling the true story of Black life in America.

In 1926, convinced of the need to bring greater visibility to Black achievements in American history, Woodson championed the first national Negro History Week. He selected 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).

History.com notes that the inaugural event proved inspiring to groups throughout the United States, especially those concentrated in education. State Departments of Education, universities, and student organizations were quick to embrace this annual period of appreciation. And as a testament to Woodson’s initial goal—to inspire appreciation of Black history and culture not just during a single week, but every day—the initial event inspired the development of numerous historical societies, academic clubs, and local celebrations.

Particularly important in the early history of Black History Week were schools known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities—institutions that actively cultivated higher education with an emphasis on Black identity and achievement.

Learn more about the History of HBCUs here or jump to our look at the Best HBCUs both online and in-person.

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The First Black History Month

It is no coincidence that the same educational institutions which most actively promoted Black History Week were also those that would help seed the Civil Rights movement. In the years since Woodson first proposed Black History Week, educators and universities dedicated a more concerted effort to incorporating the experiences and achievements of Black Americans into the teaching of American history.

This education would play an important part in a period that AfricanAmericanHistoryMonth.gov refers to as The Black Awakening. In the 1960s, the same clubs and groups that a decade prior were dedicated to incorporating Black experiences into American history were now leading the charge against segregation in the South.

As the fomenting Civil Rights movement brought the struggle for equality into fuller focus, Black History Week became an increasingly important celebration in Black communities. And as celebrations of Black History Week gained momentum, recognition leapt from schools and universities to town halls. By the 1960s, says History.com, mayors in major cities throughout the U.S. would issue annual statements acknowledging the weekly celebration.

Out of this rising appreciation grew the imperative to expand the celebration from one week to one month. Some accounts trace the origins of this expanded celebration to Kent State University which is said to have first designated the entire month of February to the appreciation of Black History in 1970.

It’s worth noting that this is the very same year Critical Race Theory first appeared in university-level curricula. Black History Month and Critical Race Theory share common ground in the perspective that an accurate telling of American history must also include a clear and honest recognition of the determinant role played by racial inequality in American history. For a deeper exploration of the subject, take a look at the Top Critical Race Theory Influencers.

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Black History Month Transcends Education

Within less than a decade, the expanded celebration had been adopted throughout the U.S. In 1976, then-president General Ford issued an official proclamation declaring February Black History Month. It has been observed nationwide since that time.

Black History Week–as well as Black History Month thereafter–was inspired by educational goals. Carter G. Woodson shared the view of prominent Black scholars, educators, and activists before him like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Booker T. Washington. Each emphasized the importance of education in advancing the standing of Black Americans.

It was thus that Woodson began his mission with a focus on education—not about a separate Black History in America but about the role of Black Americans in American History. Woodson passed away in 1950, well before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the national inception of Black History Month in 1976. But he would perhaps be pleased to know that its acknowledgement now extends well beyond classroom walls and academic halls. February is, today, marked as Black History Month by major corporations, government agencies, charitable organizations, and by an array of nations beyond the borders of the U.S.

That said, monthly celebrations still reveal how much work is left to be done to realize both Woodson’s ambition to elevate the visibility of Black Americans in American history, and to realize the broader mission of racial equality in the United States. Indeed, public debates today over issues like the teaching of Critical Race Theory exemplify the ongoing push and pull between those who aspire to Woodson’s aim of making Black history and American history inextricable, and those who oppose this goal.

This underscores the heated debate that still surrounds a number of racially-charged issues in American public life such as the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, Police Brutality, Reparations, Black Lives Matter, and Extremism.

And if you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the issues of race, gender, law, and intersectionality, consider the following online degree options:

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Photo Credits:

  • Carter G. Woodson, By Unknown author - NPGallery, Public Domain.
  • W.E.B. DuBois, By Cornelius Marion Battey - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a53178, Public Domain.

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