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
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
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
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
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
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.
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