The Importance of Black History Month: How Black Educators Established a Monthlong Tradition

As we honor Black History Month all February long, a primer on who deserves credit for the celebration and why.

By Billy Nilles Feb 03, 2021 10:12 PMTags
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"If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

It's from this central thesis that Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a child of formerly enslaved people, set out to change the course of education in America as it relates to the historical accomplishments and contributions of Black people. And it's he who we have to thank for the enduring existence of Black History Month.

Born on Dec. 19, 1875, Woodson's economic circumstances meant that his childhood wasn't dedicated to education, but instead to work on the family farm and in a coal mine. Yet he understood the importance of learning, chipping away at his studies until he was able to receive a high school diploma at the age of 20. His pursuit of knowledge continued through undergraduate work at Berea College and graduate programs at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, becoming only the second Black man to earn a PhD from the latter in 1912.

And the more he learned, the more he realized just how ignored America's Black population truly was in the textbooks of the day. So he set out to change that.

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According to  Daryl Michael Scott, a professor of history at Howard University, the idea for what would eventually become Black History Month came to Woodson in 1915. Traveling from Washington, D.C., to Chicago for a national celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, Woodson was among the thousands of Black citizens who arrived to take part in the weekslong festivities full of exhibits "highlighting the progress their people had made since the destruction of slavery."

Inspired as he was by the events and certain of the need for a "scientific study" of the "neglected aspects of Negro life and history," he, along with William D. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson and James E. Stamps, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African America Life and History, or ASALH) on Sept. 9, 1915, with the purpose of training a new generation of Black people in historical research and methodology. A year later, he published The Journal of Negro History, a quarterly academic chronicle of the overlooked achievements of Black Americans.

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Seeking to amplify his message to a wider audience, he began encouraging his fraternity Omega Psi Phi to promote his work. And in 1924, they responded by creating the "Negro Achievement Week." While that helped advance the cause, Woodson still wasn't satisfied and sought even greater impact. He decided it would be the ASALH's responsibility to shoulder and, in 1926, he sent out a press release declaring the second week in February "Negro History Week." Woodson chose that particular week, in part, because it encompasses the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, who was instrumental in abolishing slavery, and Frederick Douglass, the celebrated Black abolitionist and orator. 

But, as Scott wrote, the idea was to shift attention from the accomplishments of just two men and towards that of the entire race. "Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men," the professor said. "He envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man. And Lincoln, however great, had not freed the slaves—the Union Army, including hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors, had done that. Rather than focusing on two men, the black community, he believed, should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization."

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To keep up with the demand from people who heeded Woodson's call, he and the ASALH set a theme for the annual celebration and provided educational resources, including pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people. It's a tradition the ASALH has kept up, with the theme for 2021 being "The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity."

For Woodson, it was essential that young Black people be proud of their heritage. "Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history," he said. And prior to his death in 1950, he'd become resolute in the idea that the recognition of such history not be relegated to simply a week. He began asking schools to use the week to demonstrate what students had learned all year, with the end goal being a daily education in Black history that would eventually render the need for such a week obsolete.

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Sadly, that particular dream of Woodson's hasn't been actualized yet. But it has been advanced further.

Twenty years after Woodson passed away, the Black United Students organization at Kent State University, along with their Black educators, pushed for the expansion of the week, initiating Black History Month on campus in 1970. With college campuses across the country similarly expanding their celebrations, the ASALH began to take notice and, by 1976, threw their weight behind the official change from Negro History Week to Black History Month.

That year, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the month-long celebration as a federal observance, urging the American public to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." 

In 1986, Congress would pass a law designating February as National Black History Month, with Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton issuing their own proclamations recognizing it as a federal observance during their presidencies. Since 1996, every POTUS has issued such a proclamation annually. 

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While the commodification of Black History Month has obscured its guiding intention just a bit, it's important to note that Woodson was hopeful of one thing: "We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world, void of national bias, race, hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has far influenced the development of civilization."

Or, as President Barack Obama said in 2016, "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 from 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. It's about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future. It's a reminder of where we as a country have been so that we know where we need to go."

Because, after all, Black history is American history.