The History of Black History Month

In connection with March’s Continuing Conversation, here is an introduction to how Black History Month evolved.  The discussion will be March 2, 7-9 pm, on the third floor of Princeton Public Library.

In the summer of 1915, thousands of blacks gathered in Chicago1 for a national celebrationto mark the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment and to honor the progress that African Americans had made in the 50 years since emancipation. Among those gathered in Chicago were Carter G Woodson2, who with A.L. Jackson, George C. Hall, and James E. Stamps, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Under the guidance of Carter G Woodson, this organization established The Journal of Negro History in 1916. This was the first scholarly journal to publish research in the history of Americans of African descent.

Interest in these studies increased at black collegesand in 1924 Negro History and Literature Week was created. Carter G. Woodson understood the need to expand Negro History and Literature Week to reach a larger audience beyond the black colleges, and in 1926 he created Negro History Week. Its goal was to reach schools and communities across the country. Woodson said “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.”

February was chosen because black communities in America at that time celebrated the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both born in February. Woodson felt that Negro History Week could encompass both of these celebrations, but could also expand these celebrations to uphold the achievements of the many, not just the two. Woodson believed that history was made by the people and it was paramount to study the successes of the many men and women who achieved success in numerous fields and who had struggled for freedom, justice and equality.

Woodson believed that history could be used to inspire people to achieve. He knew from his own research that there was too much black history to be contained within a single week and his ultimate goal was to have black history incorporated into the regular school curriculum. He was concerned that Negro History Week, rather than becoming a focal point of serious study, would simply become a weeklong celebration which afterwards would be forgotten about until the following year.

In his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson criticized the denial of good quality education for black people, and the denial of their history. He wrote:

“The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with  the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile,  depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by  making  him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up  to the standards of other people.”

Negro History Week slowly spread across the country but its support was limited. During the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, Black History was being quietly taught in the segregated schools of the south and openly taught in the Freedom Schools. In the late 1960s and 1970s the demand for Black History grew and became part of the curriculum in many colleges and universities across the country.  In 1976, with the support of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Negro History Week became Black History Month and finally was recognized across the country.

2015 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the first professional association of historians in this field. 

Footnotes:

  1. For the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the white organizers debated whether or not to exclude blacks from attending the Exposition. Ida B. Wells urged African Americans to boycott the fair, whereas Frederick Douglass urged African Americans to attend and make their presence fully known. As a token compromise, the white Exposition managers set aside a “Colored American Day.” This was another step towards the “Separate But Equal” law of the land which was enacted in 1896.
  2. The son of former enslaved people, Carter G Woodson was born in West Virginia in 1875. He taught himself to read and he worked to help support his family until he was 20, when he entered high school and finished in two years. He then enrolled at Berea College and graduated in two years. A few years later he became the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His degree was in history.

Don Stryker

Continuing Conversations, February, 2015

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One Comment on “The History of Black History Month

  1. Pingback: Black History Month: Why Does it Matter | NIOT Princeton

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