The basic idea that underlies Black History Month has been around in one form or another for more than 100 years. Here are a few highlights outlining how this special month-long designation unfolded through the decades.
The concept of setting time aside to acknowledge the struggles and celebrate the accomplishments of people in the Black community took hold in the summer of 1915 when Illinois sponsored a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation.
Carter G. Woodson, a University of Chicago alumnus, traveled from Washington, D.C. to participate in the event — along with thousands of other Black Americans from around the U.S. While inspired by what he saw, Woodson also knew the accomplishments of Black Americans were scarcely recognized. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). He, along with other like-minded intellectuals in the Black community, worked to expand the knowledge of Black history and was involved in numerous publications and other efforts to that end.
Woodson, born of illiterate parents who were former slaves, earned a PhD in history from Harvard University in 1912, only the second African American to earn a doctorate. More about his life and groundbreaking accomplishments can be found at https://asalh.org/.
According to ASALH, Woodson felt that the American Historical Association had no interest in Black history. A dues-paying member of the AHA, he was not allowed to attend AHA conferences. ASALH explains that to be able to work as a Black historian would require creating an institutional structure that would make it possible for Black scholars to study history — so Woodson set out to find the funds to make this happen.
In 1926, Woodson initiated the celebration of Negro History Week, which corresponded with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, ASALH expanded the celebration to include the entire month of February, and “today Black History Month garners support throughout the country as people of all ethnic and social backgrounds discuss the Black experience,” states ASALH. The organization views the promotion of Black History Month as one of the most important components of advancing Woodson’s legacy of “pioneering leadership.”
In 1976, Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford, who issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month. He urged the nation to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation's life and culture” by Black Americans.
This proclamation stated further that this month was a time “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion."
A decade later, Congress passed the observance into law as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” According to the Library of Congress, “National African American History Month in February celebrates the contributions that African Americans have made to American history in their struggles for freedom and equality and deepens our understanding of our Nation's history.”
Black History Month also is celebrated Canada during February, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom it’s observed in October.
In honor of all the work that Woodson did to promote the study of African American History, an ornament of Woodson hangs on the White House’s Christmas tree each year.
This story is compiled with information from the Library of Congress, Wikipedia and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.