The story of how Negro History Week became Black History Month

Mildred Europa Taylor February 01, 2023
MLK and other Black leaders. Photo: National Museum of African American History and Culture

Every February, Black History Month is celebrated to recognize the achievements of African Americans and the impact they made on U.S. history. The celebration emerged out of Negro History Week pioneered by historian Carter G. Woodson and other Black personalities in the month of February 1926.

Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially recognized the month of February as Black History Month. So how did Negro History Week become Black History Month?

History says it all began with the celebration of Douglass Day by Washington, D.C. schools. After the death of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in February 1895, Mary Church Terrell, an activist and educator, suggested the creation of a school holiday to celebrate the life of Douglass. She made this known at a school board meeting for the Washington-area “colored schools” on January 12, 1897.

The school board sided with her, and set aside the afternoon of February 14, 1897, for students to study the life of Douglass and his works. February 14 was the date Douglass celebrated as his birthday. He did not know his actual date of birth, being born enslaved. 

By the 1900s, Carter G. Woodson would take the study of black history nationwide. Widely regarded as the “father of black history” the author, historian, journalist and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History was also one of the first individuals to study African-American history. Woodson received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912, making history as the second African American after W.E.B. Du Bois to achieve such a feat at the prestigious university.

In 1915, he was at the Lincoln Jubilee celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago when he realized that many people were awed by the exhibitions that centered on Black achievements and the overall event itself. So he decided to take initiatives that would take Black history far.

This gave birth to the formation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) on September 9, 1915. The organization was aimed at encouraging the scientific study of Black life and history. A year after its formation, the organization established The Journal of Negro History, which became the first scholarly journal to publish the findings of research about what Black people had achieved in the past, a report by The New York Times said.

Woodson’s Omega Psi Fraternity brothers also helped him raise awareness about the significance of Black history by creating Negro History and Literature Week in 1924. But Woodson wanted more for Black history. Thus, in February 1926, he announced the first Negro History Week. He launched the Week in February not only because of Douglass’ birthday being in that month but also due to the fact that Abraham Lincoln was born that month.

February 12, which was Lincoln’s birthday, was celebrated by some African Americans at the time. Douglass Day, celebrated on February 14, had also become very popular thanks to Terrell. To celebrate Negro History Week, Woodson and his fellow Black leaders came out with a K-12 teaching curriculum with biographical information, photos, and lesson plans, according to the report by The New York Times. Woodson also organized lectures, parades, breakfasts, beauty pageants, and historical performances to spread his message, the platform added.

Negro History Week was celebrated in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. In the 1940s, citizens in West Virginia started celebrating what they called Negro History Month. Negro History Clubs were formed in high schools across the country. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which Woodson led, also started creating branches across the country. 

By the 1960s, a decade after Woodson’s death, Black college students started leading the charge to preserve African-American history within society. Students and educators at Kent State University subsequently came up with the first Black History Month in February 1969 and observed it the following year in February.

In February 1976, President Gerald Ford publicly highlighted Black History Month and encouraged Americans to recognize and study the often-overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 1, 2023


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