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A Brief History of Black History Month

Commemorated each February, Black History Month (or African American History Month) is a celebration of the history, contributions, and achievements of Black Americans. Its origins trace back nearly a century to the pioneering work of a group of Black educators and activists in the 1920s, and it has been a federally recognized event since 1976.

Why Is Black History Month Celebrated in February?

Drawing of Frederick Douglass sitting at his desk with a newspaper.
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The predecessor to Black History Month, Negro History Week, took place during the second week of February because of its overlap with two other dates of great significance to Black Americans at the time. President Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation helped end slavery in America, was born on February 12, and famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass celebrated his birthday on February 14. (Douglass was born into slavery and was uncertain of his actual birthdate.) The founders of Negro History Week hoped to capitalize on existing celebrations surrounding these events in early February to help popularize their new initiative.

Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Black History Month

Carter G Woodson memorial park statue in Washington DC.
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Known as the “Father of Black History Month,” Carter G. Woodson was a former sharecropper from Virginia who was forced to delay formal education until his late teens as he worked to support his family. After finishing high school in just two years, he attended the University of Chicago and earned a doctorate from Harvard, becoming the second Black American to do so (the first was activist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois).

Woodson traveled to Chicago in August 1915 to attend the “Lincoln Jubilee,” an exposition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery. Among the events was a series of exhibits meant to showcase advancements by Black Americans during this period. While the exhibits drew large crowds, the exposition took place against a backdrop of heightened racial tensions. Earlier that year, D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation had premiered, and its racist, stereotypical portrayal of Black people and idealized version of the brutality inflicted upon enslaved people had caused a furor, leading to protests by civil rights groups that did little to stop its box office success.

At a gathering with colleagues at a Chicago YMCA that September, Woodson pressed the need for a scholarly organization to reclaim and promote Black history, a subject that was often absent from American schoolbooks and classrooms. The organization was originally known as the “Study of Negro History” and is today the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The Journal of Negro History was launched the following year. In 1924, at Woodson’s urging, members of the Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi launched the first Negro History and Literature Week, and the first Negro History Week was held in February 1926.

The event launched at an opportune time, as the 1920s saw a flourishing of Black intellectual thought and arts in both the “New Negro” movement and the Harlem Renaissance. Woodson and his associates produced a wide array of materials for use in both Black and integrated classrooms. Black history clubs opened in many parts of the country, and Negro History Week, which featured plays, banquets, and parades, grew in popularity. Woodson continued to champion for the cause, which he saw as crucial to the creation of future Black leaders, until his death in 1950.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Growth of Black History Month

 Ronald Reagan giving a speech and gesturing towards a print of the Carter G Woodson stamp at aWhite House Ceremony for Black History Month
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The 1950s and ‘60s saw the rise of the modern civil rights movement aimed at promoting equality and fighting racial prejudice and segregation. Students and educators eagerly took up the cause and called for the creation of Black studies programs in colleges across the nation. The ASALH began lobbying for expanding the commemoration from one week to a month, urged on by its younger members. There was already precedence for this, as West Virginia, where Woodson had frequently lectured, had been celebrating Negro History Month since the 1940s.

In 1970, students at Ohio’s Kent State University held the first Black History Month on a college campus, and in 1974, President Gerald Ford met with civil rights leaders who pressed him for federal recognition of a month-long commemoration. In 1976, 50 years after the first Negro History Week, President Ford issued a statement calling on all Americans to celebrate Black History Month as part of America’s bicentennial celebration, noting, “We can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Every President since has followed this tradition, issuing a proclamation each February marking Black History Month.

Black History Month Themes

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From its earliest years, the ASALH has centered the annual commemoration around a theme to call attention to issues of importance for Black Americans and to highlight their achievements. The theme for 2022 is “Black Health and Wellness,” which honors the work of both traditional and non-traditional medical practitioners throughout history, as well as initiatives focused on improving equity and racial justice in health care for Black Americans. Past themes include "The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity" (2021), "African Americans and the Vote" (2020), and "Black Migrations" (2019).