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The History of Black History Month in America

Updated on May 17, 2014
Black History Month in America
Black History Month in America | Source

February marks the celebration of Black History Month in America. A month dedicated to celebrating the achievements and accomplishments of men and women of African-descent. Even so, what is the history behind black history month? Why was it created? And why is it still being celebrated?

The Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln
The Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln | Source

The Tradition of Celebrating the Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

It all started with the tradition of celebrating the anniversary of the emancipation proclamation (which occurred on January 1st, 1863). To recap a bit, the emancipation proclamation was created by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. It was an executive order that called for the emancipation or freedom of slaves in the remaining southern states of rebellion. As a tradition, black Americans celebrated and honored this act because it propelled and initiated the freedom of slaves. So as a thank you and to appreciate this moment in American history, they honor its legacy by celebrating the anniversary of this order. Fast forward to the summer of 1915, where celebrations marked the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation proclamation are under way. A 40 year old, black American is in Chicago to participate in the festivities of this momentous affair. His name is Carter G. Woodson, a highly educated man from Virginia. He waits in line among thousands of other black Americans to see displays and exhibitions marking the achievements of black Americans of his times. Not only is he there to see displays but he is also there to exhibit. For this man and many others like him has helped in the progress of a vibrant race. Even so, what is Carter G. Woodson's story?

A portrait of a young Carter G Woodson
A portrait of a young Carter G Woodson | Source

The Story of Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson was a black- American man born December 19, 1875 (yes he was a Sagittarius zodiac sign) to two former slaves in New Canton, Virginia. His father helped Union soldiers during the Civil War. His father also stressed the importance of education, moving his family to Huntington, West Virginia on news that there was a black high school being built there. Even so, Carter was born into a big, poor family and he had to support his family. He did this by working mining jobs, though he never stray too far from learning and education. At age 20 he entered high school, less than two years later he graduated, and two years later from 1897-1900 he was a principal of the very high school he graduated from years prior. On the side of his principal duties he earned a college degree in two years, after that he went to the Philippines to be a school supervisor. He came back to the States to earn another set of college degrees, two from the University of Chicago in 1908 and a PhD from Harvard University in 1912. At the time he had been the second African American (after W.E.B Dubois) to earn a degree from Harvard University. By the time of 1915 Mr, nope.. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, had made quite a few amazing accomplishments to his name. He would later on to create quite a few more, including the inspiring precursor of the Black History Month.

Carter G. Woodson, and ASNLH

Going back to 1915, Chicago, Illinois Carter G. Woodson was deeply inspired by the three week celebrations. This inspiration lead to his decision that before leaves Chicago he must create an organization that would record the history and achievements of blacks. This organization created by him, A. L. Jackson, and three other like minded individuals, was called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (or ASNLH for short). A year later he founded and published the first edition of the “Journal of Negro History”. He would go on to found and publish for the “Associated Publishers” in 1922, and the “Negro Bulletin,’ in 1937. All these publications served to study, promote, teach and uplift the black community through research, education and promotion of black accomplishments. In 1924 he helped to found Negro History and Literature Week, (later renamed Negro Achievement Week). Even so, he set his sights larger, as any Jupiter, expansive native would do. I mean come on he is a Sagittarius, gotta arch that bow upward, outward and shoot. Anyway, going back in February 1926, he created Negro History week, the grandfather to Black History Month.

A Portrait of Frederick Douglass
A Portrait of Frederick Douglass | Source

Negro History Week

Carter G. Woodson chose February as Negro History Week to coincide with the birthdays of two great Americans that played an important role in black history in America. These two Americans were Abraham Lincoln whose birthday is February 12th and Frederick Douglass, whose birthday is February 14th.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln | Source

These two Americans helped redefine and shape black history and Dr. Woodson understood, capitalized and honors their significant roles in black American history. Not only was Dr. Woodson honoring these men but he had tricks up his sleeve. He also wanted to create a tradition to honor, these two great men but not just that. He didn’t want this week to any ole’ celebration and honor of these two great Americans, he wanted it to stand out. He also wanted to honor those who looked like him. He wanted to shift focus from these two great men to a great, vibrant race, the black race. He understood wanted to create a record and a living tradition for his own race. He is quoted stating:

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization,” (Woodson).

The New Negro
The New Negro | Source

Dr. Woodson, understood the importance and need to record and keep a history and tradition of a people, his people alive. He managed to get various Southern State Departments of Educations to back him. All the while this event got support from the black intellectual classes and it quickly took off. One thing to note is that him and his vision was a product of his times. During the 1920s, intellect and intellectualism was on the rising and reaching its peak. The Roaring Twenties as it is called included the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, suffrage, industrialization and urbanization to name a few. A time of economic prosperity and social/cultural advances and transformation, this included the position of the Negro man. The black, Negro man’s life and position was improving and with that came racial pride, consciousness and opportunities. Dr. Woodson wanted this to be an annual event that both educated but to promote the advances of the new Negro.

Blacks Learning in School, 1940
Blacks Learning in School, 1940 | Source

The Modern Negro History Week: Black History Month

Dr. Woodson died in 1950, but his efforts and energy to promote black history were not ignored. You see his influence as led to efforts of blacks to incorporate black history into their schools’ curriculum. By the 1940s, black Southern schools found some way to teach both American history and Black history. Clearly his messages were being noticed and applied. Dr. Woodson died in the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, but he was also important figure. Freedom schools also incorporated black history into its educational curriculum and soon it became a tradition. Even before the modern black history month was adopted, the month of February was used to celebrate all of black history, especially among students in West Virginia in the 1940s, and a little known Chicago social activist, Fredrick H. Hammaurabi in the 1960s.

Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C., 1963
Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C., 1963 | Source
American Black Nationalism Flag
American Black Nationalism Flag | Source

Even so, the mid to late 1960s saw the increasing sentiments of American black students had to the faraway but strangely personal connection, continent of Africa. By the 1970s the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement strengthen this pride and connection to all things black. In 1969 black students at Kent State University called for the extension of Black History Week into a month, and by 1970 they were already celebrating “Black History Month.” This naturally grew in size and popularity and in celebration for 1976, America’s Bicentennial (or 200th Anniversary, Black History Month, was legally established and recognized in America. On his moment, the current president, Gerald Ford used this occasion for all Americans, black and otherwise to quote: "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

Black History is American History
Black History is American History | Source

Overall, this has led to the establishment of black history months throughout different countries of the world; with Canada celebrating Black History Month in February, while in the United Kingdom it is celebrated in October. One thing to remember is that black history shouldn’t just be a month as celebrity and a critic of this celebration, Morgan Freeman is quoted stating. "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."

Morgan Freeman is right. Black History is American History. Even so, with Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s vision, it is more than a week or a month but a tradition meant to record and keep black accomplishments alive. So HAPPY BLACK HISTORY/AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH.!!!!!! PEACE AND POSITIVITY

Carter G Woodson Roadside marker
Carter G Woodson Roadside marker | Source

How would you be celebrating Black History Month?

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