The Evolution Of Black History Month From Negro History Week

MLK and other Black leaders. Photo: National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

Every February, Black History Month is observed to honor the accomplishments of African Americans and the impact they had on American history. The celebration grew out of Negro History Week, which was founded in February 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and other Black leaders.

Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially recognized the month of February as Black History Month. So how did Negro History Week become Black History Month?

According to history, it all started with the celebration of Douglass Day by Washington, D.C. schools. Following the death of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in February 1895, activist and educator Mary Church Terrell proposed the establishment of a school holiday to commemorate Douglass’s life. On January 12, 1897, she stated this at a school board meeting for the “colored schools” in the Washington area.

The school board agreed with her and scheduled a study of Douglass’ life and works for the afternoon of February 14, 1897. Douglass celebrated his birthday on February 14th. He had no idea what day he was born because he was born enslaved.

Carter G. Woodson would popularize the study of black history by the 1900s. The author, historian, journalist, and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History is widely regarded as the “father of black history.” He was also one of the first people to study African-American history. Woodson received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912, becoming the second African American after W.E.B. Du Bois to do so at the prestigious university.

In 1915, he was in Chicago for the Lincoln Jubilee celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of emancipation when he noticed how many people were awestruck by the exhibitions centered on Black achievements and the overall event. As a result, he decided to embark on initiatives that would propel Black history forward.

On September 9, 1915, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was founded. The organization’s goal was to promote scientific research into Black life and history. According to The New York Times, a year after its formation, the organization established The Journal of Negro History, which became the first scholarly journal to publish the findings of research on what Black people had accomplished in the past.

In 1924, Woodson’s Omega Psi Fraternity brothers also assisted him in raising awareness about the importance of Black history by establishing Negro History and Literature Week. Woodson, on the other hand, desired more for Black history. As a result, he declared the first Negro History Week in February 1926. He began the Week in February not only because Douglass’ birthday fell in that month, but also because Abraham Lincoln was born in that month.

Some African Americans observed Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, at the time. Terrell had also helped to popularize Douglass Day, which is observed on February 14. According to The New York Times, to commemorate Negro History Week, Woodson and his fellow Black leaders released a K-12 teaching curriculum complete with biographical information, photos, and lesson plans. According to the platform, Woodson also organized lectures, parades, breakfasts, beauty pageants, and historical performances to spread his message.

In North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., Negro History Week was observed. West Virginians began celebrating what they called Negro History Month in the 1940s. In high schools across the country, Negro History Clubs were formed. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History established branches across the country.

A decade after Woodson’s death, in the 1960s, Black college students took the lead in preserving African-American history in society. Students and educators at Kent State University created the first Black History Month in February 1969, and it was observed the following February.

President Gerald Ford publicly recognized Black History Month in February 1976, encouraging Americans to recognize and study the often-overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans.

 

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