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The Origins of Black History Month

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The origins of Black History Month lay in early 20th-century historian Carter G. Woodson's desire to spotlight the accomplishments of African Americans. Mainstream historians left out African Americans from the narrative of American history up until the 1960s, and Woodson worked his entire career to correct this blinding oversight. His creation of Negro History Week in 1926 paved the way for the establishment of Black History Month in 1976.

Negro History Week

In 1915, Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History or ASALH). The idea for an organization devoted to black history came to Woodson as he was discussing the release of the racist film The Birth of a Nation. Discussing it with a group of African-American men at a YMCA in Chicago, Woodson convinced the group that African Americans needed an organization that would strive for a balanced history.

The organization began publishing its flagship journal--The Journal of Negro History in 1916, and ten years later, Woodson came up with the plan for a week of activities and commemorations devoted to African-American history. Woodson chose the week of February 7, 1926, for the first Negro History Week because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), celebrated for the Emancipation Proclamation that freed many American slaves, and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would encourage better relations between blacks and whites in the United States as well as inspire young African Americans to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of their ancestors. In The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), Woodson lamented, "Of the hundreds of Negro high schools recently examined by an expert in the United States Bureau of Education only eighteen offer a course taking up the history of the Negro, and in most of the Negro colleges and universities where the Negro is thought of, the race is studied only as a problem or dismissed as of little consequence." Thanks to Negro History Week, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History began to receive requests for more accessible articles; in 1937 the organization began publishing the Negro History Bulletin aimed at African-American teachers who wanted to incorporate black history into their lessons.

Black History Month

African Americans quickly took up Negro History Week, and by the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, American educators, both white and black, were observing Negro History Week. At the same time, mainstream historians had begun to expand the American historical narrative to include African Americans (as well as women and other previously ignored groups). In 1976, as the US was celebrating its bicentennial, the ASALH expanded the traditional week-long celebration of African-American history to a month, and Black History Month was born.

That same year, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month, but it was President Carter who officially recognized Black History Month in 1978. With the federal government's blessing, Black History Month became a regular event in American schools. By the opening decade of the 21st century, however, some were questioning whether Black History Month should be continued, especially after the election of the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. For instance, in a 2009 article, commentator Byron Williams suggested that Black History Month had become "trite, stale, and pedestrian rather than informative and thought provoking" and served only to relegate " the achievements of African Americans to an adjunct status in American history."

But others continue to argue that the need for Black History Month has not disappeared. Historian Matthew C. Whitaker observed in 2009, "Black History Month, therefore, will never be obsolete. It will always be in our best interest to pause and explore the meaning of freedom through the lived experiences of a people who forced America to be true to its creed and reaffirmed the American dream. Those who would eliminate Black History Month often miss the point."

Woodson would no doubt be pleased by the expansion of the original Negro History Week. His goal in creating Negro History Week was to highlight African-American accomplishments alongside white American accomplishments. Woodson asserted in The Story of the Negro Retold (1935) that the book "is not so much that of Negro history as it is universal history." For Woodson, Negro History Week was about teaching the contributions of all Americans and correcting a national historical narrative that he felt was little more than racist propaganda.

Sources

  • "Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History." Ebony. Vol. 59, no. 4 (February 2004): 20, 108-110.
  • Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. The early Black history movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene. Champaign, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 2007.
  • Mayes, Keith A. Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009.
  • Whitaker, Matthew C. "Black History Month Still Relevant for US." The Arizona Republic. 22 February 2009. Available online: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/viewpoints/articles/2009/02/21/20090221whitaker22-vi p.html
  • Woodson, Carter G. The Mis-Education of the Negro. 1933. Available online: http://historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/misedne.html.
  • __________. The Story of the Negro Retold. The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1959.
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