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The origins of Black History Month

Published Feb 16, 2009 8:19 AM

February is designated as Black History Month in the U.S. It is also celebrated in many other countries in the African Diaspora. Black History Month was initiated in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson as “Negro History Week.” In 1976, the 200th anniversary of the U.S., the week was extended to one month, allowing for more inclusion of activities and programs.

Woodson chose the second week in February because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in February. Woodson saw them as two men who had significantly influenced the lives and social conditions of African Americans.

Lincoln was the U.S. president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, leading to the abolition of slavery. Douglass was born in 1817 in Maryland, the son of an enslaved woman and her white master. He was taken from his mother when he was an infant. When he was in his early 20s, he escaped from slavery.

Douglass was self-educated and became a fierce abolitionist. He was a newspaper editor and lecturer, known for his great oratory skills. He was an activist for women’s rights and an advisor to President Lincoln. He and Lincoln frequently debated the issue of slavery. Douglass is known for one of his phrases, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Carter G. Woodson was a Ph.D. scholar from Harvard University whose parents were formerly enslaved. In 1916 he established the Journal of Negro History on Black people in U.S. history. He also established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later, “Negro” was changed to “African American”).

Woodson initiated “Negro History Week” in order to bring attention to the significant contributions to U.S. society that Black people had made and to show that their history was an integral part of U.S. history. He noted that there was no respectable mention of Black people in history books; that they were either ignored or mainly represented as slaves, slave descendents or referenced by their designated inferior social positions.

The initial contribution of Blacks in the U.S. was, of course, the 246 years of enslaved African labor which greatly contributed to the U.S. becoming the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

The election of President Barack Obama represents the latest chapter of African-American achievements. However, for a brief period of time (1867-1877) when the emancipation of Blacks during the Reconstruction Era guaranteed ex-slaves citizenship status and the right to vote, Black men became politically active, holding 16 seats in Congress and 600 seats in state legislatures. A violent, racist white backlash ended this progressive era. One hundred years of “Jim Crow” laws, legalizing discrimination and segregation, including terror against Blacks, followed.

Black History Month celebrates the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in the U.S. in the fields of medicine, law, science and history as well as Black inventors and explorers. It also celebrates Black culture in the areas of art, dance, literature and music. The role of Black labor along with political movements, such as Pan-Africanism, Black Power, Garveyism, the right to self-defense and Black Nationalism, are honored.

Black History Month also commemorates Black economic and civic organizations, such as the NAACP (formerly the Niagara Movement), which was co-founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1909. DuBois, born of ex-slaves, was a political activist, writer and historian, well known for “The Souls of Black Folks,” published 1903. The NAACP is currently celebrating its 100-year anniversary.

Additionally, the month celebrates religious institutions, as well as Blacks in sports. Recognition is also given to the fact that Blacks have fought in every major U.S. war, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

Black history also includes several civil rights movements from the years 1896 through 1968. Following the initial involuntary mass migration out of Africa, there were several large voluntary migrations of Black people out of the South from 1896 to the end of the 1960s.

Black History Month provides an important opportunity to shed an even brighter spotlight on the legacy of oppression and injustices in the form of political, economic and social inequalities that Black people still face today and to push forward with the struggles to win full equality.

Black people are a global people. Their history started in Africa, where the civilization of humankind began, with science, math, religion and the written word. Unfortunately, though, U.S. public school systems and institutions of higher learning are still resisting the full inclusion of Black history in the curriculum of world history, not just for one month but all year round.