The Importance of Black History Month’s Little-Known Beginnings

Reem Abouchleih, Managing Editor

February 1st marked the beginning of Black History Month (BHM), a time dedicated to the celebration of Black culture, historical figures, and events in the history of the African diaspora. Like many Americans, I had always taken note of BHM beginning in February and vaguely knew its history. I knew that it was created sometime circa late 1960’s, following the assassination of prominent Black political figures like Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. 

Many people, especially those in my generation, are aware that American history has a darker, shameful side to it. My peers and I have accepted that many of the textbooks we were taught from in our history classes were whitewashed. This is a term referring to the systemic cover-up or “washing over” of violent history in revisions that seek to paint white Americans as being innocent (or simply ignorant) to systemic racism, according to writer Jeremy Helligar. What we didn’t realize, however, was our ignorance about Black History Month itself. 

Much of the discourse surrounding Black History Month emphasizes one principle many Black creators and thinkers put forward: that there shouldn’t be just one month where Black history is celebrated or even discussed. Executive Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University, Sara Clarke, encapsulated this sentiment, saying that “there is no American history without African American History… [the Black experience is] everything we think of as ‘American history’”. 

Carter G. Woodson, a scholar known as the “father of Black history”, first emphasized the need for a set period of time to celebrate Black history, as well as a time for education of non-Black people on the culture. Woodson believed that race and racism was a neglected subject by the American public. “If race has no history,” he said, “it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Woodson strongly opposed the common over-emphasis in schools on European history as having supreme importance, saying, “I don’t understand why they would devote all this time to Europe, descendants of Europe, and not give equal time to the origins of Africans.” 

At first, the scholar only planned for a one-week celebration and education period as he tried to coordinate lessons on Black history in public schools. In the three-story house he had bought in D.C., Woodson and his team, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, created a broad lesson plan, and shortly after in 1926, the second week of February was officially named “Negro History Week”. Woodson and his team did not create a specific plan, as he wanted the country to gain more insight about race and racism rather than have them learn about niche historical events. About this issue, he wrote, “it is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week… what we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred, and religious prejudice.”

However, this was a largely niche idea, and there was at first little support from mainstream academics for this week-long celebration. It wasn’t until around forty years later that his idea began to gain traction due to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-to-late 1960s. White Americans were beginning to pay attention to the movement, whether for positive or negative reasons, due to its more mainstream coverage. By 1968, Negro History Week evolved into what we call Black History Month today; American protests against systemic and individual racism and imperialism were at an all-time high after the untimely deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Universities began holding commemorations for Black History Month.

During the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, (two-hundred-year anniversary of independence), President Gerald Ford officially recognized 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 our history.” 

Many people – including myself – would not assume that February has a special correlation with Black history and culture. However, Woodson was tactical about choosing the second week of the second month of the year: the second week of February coincides with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Both are well known for their work on the emancipation of slaves and the abolitionist movement, which found an end to the enslavement of African people in the United States. The second week of February was then named as a way to “commemorate the Black past” according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). 

In 2016, forty years after Ford’s official announcement, it was President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black, biracial president that reiterated a central sentiment at the White House (itself a quintessential symbol of power built by slaves), saying, “Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington or some of our sports heroes… 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.”

Today, we have the ability to access information about the Civil Rights Movement and Black History Month that would never have been available thirty or even twenty years ago. Many may not know Woodson’s name, or even his legacy. Despite this, he and his team left behind something invaluable that not many have been able to accomplish – education reform on systemic racism that was unheard of or too taboo to talk about in the 1920s. In 2003, Woodson’s D.C. home was officially recognized by Congress as a National Historic Site. 

Regarding Carter Woodson’s legacy, former ASALH National Secretary Karsonya Whitehead said, “Carter Woodson represents for us living history and the importance of knowing whose shoulders we stand on. To be in spaces where he studied and where great minds gathered, to have this real connection to history by being able to touch it, brings history to life.”