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The Origin of Black History Month

HISTORY: What lead to the creation of the annual celebration of African American achievements?

African Americans have been making game changing achievements in history for a long, long time. Even though we honor these heroes for their accomplishments and sacrifices year round, February has always held a special place in our hearts as Black History Month.

Black History Month gives us the ability to dedicate an entire month exclusively to paying our respects to the great triumphs, deeds and victories paved by those who came before us. But how did Black History Month start? Who was the mastermind behind it’s inception?

But how did Black History Month start? Who was the mastermind behind its inception?

It all began in 1915.

Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson, Father of the Black History

Carter Godwin Woodson, more commonly known as the “Father of Black History”, was inspired when he traveled to Chicago in the summer of 1915 for the national celebration for the anniversary of the Emancipation. African Americans traveled from all over the country to to see exhibits that showcased the progress of African Americans since the official end of slavery.

Enamoured by three week celebration and the exhibits that spoke to African American history, Woodson decided that he would create an organization that would promote the scientific study of black life and history. So in September of that same year he met with several other African Americans professionals who felt the same way he did: William Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, A.L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps.

Thus, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was founded. The name would later be changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Four months after their founding, Woodson began to publish the Journal of Negro History and in 1937, he began to publish the Negro History Bulletin.

The Journal was aimed at professionally trained scholars, who were involved primarily in document research and whose audience would be fellow scholars, while the Bulletin was aimed at high school teachers and their efforts to educate youth on the importance of African American history.

ASNLH 20th Anniversary Planning Committee - 1936
ASNLH 20th Anniversary Planning Committee, 1936
Courtesy of Chicago Public Library

Woodson’s goal was to have fellow African Americans to popularize the ASNLH’s research findings as he urged Black civic groups to promote these achievements. Their outreach was significant and their following grew everyday.

Seeking a greater impact on spreading the knowledge of African American history, it wasn’t until several years later in 1926, that Woodson established and went public with the Negro History and Literature Week, which he later renamed Negro Achievement Week.

Woodson chose the month of February for three reasons. The two most commonly known reasons are that the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are on the 12th and 14th respectively, are in the same month.

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The third and more important reason is because of tradition. Due to the role that these two men played in black history, people had already been celebrating these two dates. In order to secure a smooth transition, Woodson cited the second week of February as Negro History and Literature Week to directly build on the same tradition thus ensuring that NHL week would take root, but that the celebration would shift its focus from just these two prominent men to the history and accomplishments of the African American race as a whole.

Needless to say, Negro History and Literature Week did in fact stick. Cities and town across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognizing NHL week and the demand for information was even more fierce. With a steady flow of knowledge, Negro History clubs formed all over the country.

Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson, Father of the Black History

In 1976, President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance in 1976, on both the fiftieth anniversary of the first Negro History and Literature Week and America’s bicentennial year.

His famous words to the public were this, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

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