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Origins of Black History Month

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| Carter G. Woodson |

 

February is the month when we celebrate Black History. Why do we celebrate it, and what are it's origins? and why the month of February?

Black History Month was a response to the total omission & absence of any mention of black contribution and participation in the history of the American story. Until the middle of the 20th century much of American history taught in American schools and colleges was essentially European American history.

Much of the credit for Black History month goes to Carter G. Woodson, considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history. The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. He received his education during the four-month term that was customary for black schools at the time. At 19, having taught himself English fundamentals and arithmetic, Woodson entered high school, where he completed a four-year curriculum in two years. He went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago and later earned a doctorate from Harvard.

As Woodson learnt the history from textbooks of his time, he noted that there was no mention of Black history in the American story. Everything was centered around White America. Woodson took on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation’s history. 

The whole endeavor started during the summer of 1915. An alumnus of the University of Chicago with many friends in the city, Woodson traveled from Washington, D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Thousands of African Americans travelled from across the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the destruction of slavery. Woodson joined the other exhibitors with a black history display. Despite being held at the Coliseum, the site of the 1912 Republican convention, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. Inspired by the three-week celebration, Woodson decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of black life and history before leaving town. On September 9th, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA with A. L. Jackson and three others and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).

In 1926, Woodson developed Negro History Week. He believed “the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.” In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month.

Frederick-Douglass-antislavery-activist | Abraham-Lincoln-16th-president-of-the-United-States.

| Frederick Douglass (left) was an antislavery activist and Abraham Lincoln (right) served as the 16th president of the United States |

Woodson decided on a week in February because two important men were born in that month. The first was Frederick Douglass, a former slave in the 1800s who spoke out for the freedom of slaves, as well as equal rights for women. And the second was Abraham Lincoln. As the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln fought for the freedom of all slaves throughout the country.

While Woodson’s idea began as a one-week celebration, it eventually became a month-long event called Black Heritage Month in the United States in 1976.

What Carter G. Woodson would say about the continued celebrations is unknown, but he would smile on all honest efforts to make black history a field of serious study and provide the public with thoughtful celebrations.

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