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Where Did Black History Month Come From?

As we celebrate Black His and Her Story Month, I wanted to take this time to reflect and share various stories, influential people, and historical milestones, throughout Black History. I am so excited to be able to take this journey through time with you all. If you have any fun facts, stories, and/or forgotten moments throughout our shared history that you would like me to investigate and share, please feel free to reach out.

 

In the United States, February is often referred to as the “Month of Love,” symbolizing hearts, kisses, and Valentines; only passingly seen as a celebration of Black History. Black history is world history, and Black History Month represents Black influence around the world. Today, we not only celebrate Black astronauts, scientists, inventors, artists, and activists of the past; we also celebrate the rise of Black business, arts, and literature that will continue to influence the future.

 

To kick off this Black His and Her Story Month series, it is important that we gain an understanding of the importance of Black History Month and why it takes place in February. I am sure many of us have heard or observed that Black History Month takes place in February because it is the shortest month of the year. This is not the case. In fact, February was chosen for various reasons of reform and tradition, all of which we will be diving into today.

 

The story of Black History Month began in Chicago during the summer of 1915. An alumnus of the University of Chicago, Carter G. 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 around the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since slavery ended. It was in this moment that Woodson was inspired to form an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. Along with several other black intellectuals in 1916, he published “The Journal of Negro History.” Woodson went on to inspire others and build relationships with several organizations, urging others to dive into the work of uncovering and exposing the historical influence of Black people. Going forward it would both create and popularize knowledge about the Black past. He later sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February 1926.

 

It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping Black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Black community, along with other republicans, had been celebrating the fallen president’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, Black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’. Aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the Black past. He asked the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success.

 

Well before his death in 1950, Woodson believed that the weekly celebrations—not the study or celebration of Black history–would eventually come to an end. In fact, Woodson never viewed Black history as a one-week affair. He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. Woodson believed that Black history was too important to America and the world to be crammed into a limited time frame. He spoke of a shift from Negro History Week to Negro History Year.

 

The 1960s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of Black history. Before the decade was over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month. The shift to a month-long celebration began even before Dr. Woodson’s death. As early as the 1940s, Blacks in West Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month.

 

In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the association used its influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to Black history. Since the mid-1970s, every American president, democrat and republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the association’s annual theme.

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