The History Behind Black History Month

In late 1925, the prominent scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson announced that the second week in February 1926 would be declared Negro History Week. He picked that month because it paired up with the month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass birthdays. It was a bold move to dare declare a special time to recognize the accomplishments of the “Negro,” but the times were ripe for bold moves. It all began with the great migration of Blacks out of the South into the northern cities around 1912. There were two primary reasons why Blacks packed up and began to abandon the part of the country that had been their home since slavery. One, they were escaping the increasing degree of violence against them by southern whites. The second reason was the belief that their economic condition would improve because of the perceived number of job opportunities available to them in the North.

Accompanying this great migration was a new mindset. Free from the restrictions forced on them in the South, Blacks were able to express who they were through the arts and literature as well as music. One of the leading proponents of this new movement was Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, editor of the Crisis Magazine. Another strong proponent was Dr. Alain Locke, Dean of Philosophy at Howard University. These two men assumed a primary role in adopting this new movement in Harlem, during the famous Renaissance period of the 1920’s. Locke explained it in the following words: “Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.” Locke labeled it as the New Negro Movement.

Dr, Woodson, the second Black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, also became a proponent of the New Negro Movement. In 1915, in coordination with the prominent Black minister and Washington, D.C. community leader, Jesse E. Moorland, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The organization’s primary purpose was to research and promote achievements by Blacks in America and Africans on the continent. The organization’s findings were published in the Journal of Negro History with Dr. Woodson as the editor. These studies served as a counter to the negative portrayal of the Black in white literature and, at that time, accompanied with the release of the racist movie Birth of a Nation, that had an official showing in the Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1915.

Dr. Woodson’s basic premise for his research was that no other race of people should be in control of the education of another race’s children, and this was especially true in the United States. He constantly pointed out, without fear of reprisal, the negative images that Black children received in their education. He wrote, “To handicap a student by teaching him that his Black face is a curse and that his struggle to change is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”

As he observed this continued debasement of his race and the exposure of the children to this psychological abuse, he introduced Black History Week. In defense of his claim of recognition for that week he wrote, “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 response was overwhelmingly positive and the years that followed witnessed the growth of the celebration all over the country. Negro history clubs became popular and teachers began to acknowledge its importance and stress Black heroes and accomplishments, specifically during that week.

In February 1969, at the height of the Black is Beautiful Movement, Black students at Kent State University insisted that the week should be stretched to the entire month. The next year those students did extend it from one week to two months, January 2 to February 28. Other entities began to celebrate not two months, but the entire month of February. Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford endorsed February as the official national Black History Month, and it is now recognized and celebrated as a time to acknowledge the great contributions the Black race in America has made to the world civilization.

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