The History of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History” was the son of slaves who became the second black man to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University. He was a noted author and historian.

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I have been reading many stories of people that I have not previously had the opportunity to know about in addition to a little bit about the advent of Black History Month itself. I have mixed feelings about the idea of Black History Month. On the one hand, shouldn’t Black history just be a normal part of, you know, every day history? Why would we treat it as something separate from the shared history of this nation? If history is the stories of people who have shaped the nation that we have today, then that history should include the diverse stories of everyone that has shaped culture, science, politics and so forth. But the stories we so often are taught in history classes have been narrowed down to a fraction of the people who played roles in history to tell a set narrative and the voices that have historically been left out of these narratives are those belonging to minorities. Since the accomplishments of many black men and women have historically been overlooked due to the prejudices in our culture, the arrival of Black History Month was a positive step forward in remedying our collective ignorance of many people whose stories we need to know.

“It’s about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America. It’s about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future. It’s a reminder of where we as a country have been so that we know where we need to go.”- President Obama in 2016 speech

Black History month came about after historian Carter G. Woodson attended a 50th anniversary celebration of the 13th amendment in 1915. The weeks long celebration included various exhibits celebrating black culture. Inspired, Carter G. Woodson joined four others in founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) with the focus to bring attention to black stories that had been so long overlooked by mainstream academia. His work to highlight previously unknown accomplishments of black men and women continued to expand in the following years. His fraternity created Negro History and Literature Week and two years later he and the ASALH officially declared the second week of February to be “Negro History Week”. The second week of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and Frederick Douglass on February 14th. In the years that followed, more schools and communities began to take part in recognizing the week-long celebration and eventually that recognition expanded to the full month of February. In 1976, as the ASALH promoted the expansion to recognize Black History Month, President Ford formally declared February as Black History Month and encouraged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout history.”

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”- Carter G. Woodson

Today, as we continue to celebrate Black History Month, the recognition continues to grow that one month is hardly enough to dedicate to the study of stories that are a part of the entire fabric of a nation and maybe one day we will reach a point where the study of history is truly integrated with stories of all races and ethnicities. But until we reach that day, I am grateful for the work of Carter G. Woodson and many other historians like him who fought to tell stories that we may otherwise have never heard.

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