Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month. It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, and more recently has been observed in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. It began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom it is observed in October.
Negro History Week (1926)
The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week”. This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 20, both of which dates black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. Negro History Week was the center of the equation. The thought-process behind the week was never recorded, but scholars acknowledge two reasons for its birth: recognition and importance. Woodson felt deeply that at least one week would allow for the general movement to become something annually celebrated. Also, after the ten year long haul to successfully complete his “Journal of Negro History”, he realized the subject deserved to resonate with a greater audience.
From the event’s initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of black Americans in the nation’s public schools. The first Negro History Week was met with a lukewarm response, gaining the cooperation of the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Despite this far from universal observance, the event was regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association”, and plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis continued apace.
At the time of Negro History Week’s launch, Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:
“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.”
By 1929, The Journal of Negro History was able to note that with only two exceptions, officials with the State Departments of Education of “every state with considerable Negro population” had made the event known to that state’s teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event”. Churches also played a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week during this initial interval, with the mainstream and black press aiding in the publicity effort.
Throughout the 1930s, Negro History Week countered the growing myth of the South’s “lost cause”, as epitomized in both the novel and the movie Gone With The Wind. That myth argued that slaves had been well-treated, that the Civil War was a war of “northern aggression”, and that blacks had been better off under slavery. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions”, Woodson wrote in his book The Miseducation of the American Negro. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”
Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.
United States: Black History Month (1970)
Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from January 2 to February 28, 1970.
Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country in educational institutions, centers of Black culture and community centers, both great and small, when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month in 1976, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
In the black community, Black History Month was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of Black History clubs, and an increase in interest among teachers and from progressive whites.
On February 21, 2016, 106-year-old Washington D.C. resident and school volunteer Virginia McLaurin visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by the president why she was there, McLaurin said, “A Black president. A Black wife. And I’m here to celebrate Black history. That’s what I’m here for.” —Wikipedia