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How Negro History Week became Black History Month and why it matters now
Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States for close to 100 years but what is it exactly and how did it begin? Jamiel Law/The New York Times.

by Veronica Chambers

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States for nearly 100 years. But what is it exactly, and how did it begin?

In the years after Reconstruction, campaigning for the importance of Black history and doing the scholarly work of creating the canon was a cornerstone of civil rights work for leaders such as Carter G. Woodson. Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, explained, “These are men [like Woodson] who were trained formally and credentialed in the ways that all intellectuals and thought leaders of the early 20th century were trained, at Harvard and places like that. But in order to make the argument — in order to make the claim about Black genius, about Black excellence — you have to build the space in which to do that. There is no room.” This is how they built the room.


On Feb. 20, Frederick Douglass, the most powerful civil rights advocate of his era, dies.

Douglass collapsed after attending a meeting with suffragists, including his friend Susan B. Anthony. A lifelong supporter of women’s rights, Douglass was among the 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, New York. He once said, “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people. But when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”


Schools in Washington, D.C., begin to celebrate what becomes known as Douglass Day.

On Jan. 12, 1897, Mary Church Terrell, an educator and community activist, proposed the idea of a school holiday to celebrate Douglass’ life at a school board meeting for the Washington-area “colored schools.” The school board agreed to set aside the afternoon of Feb. 14, 1897, the date Douglass celebrated as his birthday (he had been born enslaved and did not know his exact date of birth), for students to learn about his life, writing and speeches.


Woodson, the scholar now known as “the father of Black history,” was inspired to take his work nationwide.

Woodson was born in 1875, the son of former enslaved people. He worked as a coal miner before receiving his master’s at the University of Chicago, and he was the second African American to receive a doctorate at Harvard (after W.E.B. DuBois). In the summer of 1915, Woodson attended the Lincoln Jubilee celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago, featuring exhibitions that highlighted African Americans’ recent accomplishments. After seeing the thousands of people who attended from across the country, Woodson was inspired to do more in the spirit of honoring Black history and heritage.


The movement for Black History grows.

On Sept. 9, 1915, Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. (Today, the organization is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.) In 1916, the association established The Journal of Negro History, the first scholarly journal that published researchers’ findings on the historical achievements of Black individuals.

Woodson believed that “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.” To that end, he asked his Omega Psi Fraternity brothers to join him in the work of spreading the importance of Black history. The Omega Psi Fraternity created Negro History and Literature Week in 1924. But Woodson had even greater aspirations for Negro History to become a significant part of the culture across the country.


In the 1920s, a decade of hope and possibility for Black Americans, Negro History Week begins.

Woodson believed deeply that a celebration of Black history would have lasting impact on future generations of leaders. As he reportedly told an audience of Hampton University students, “We are going back to that beautiful history, and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” Determined to lead the charge to study that history, Woodson announced the first Negro History Week in February 1926.

He chose February because it was the month in which both President Abraham Lincoln and Douglass were born. After Lincoln’s assassination, his birthday, on Feb. 12, had been celebrated by Black Americans and Republicans. Douglass Day, which was observed on Feb. 14, had grown in popularity since Terrell had started it in Washington in 1897. Woodson saw Negro History Week as a way to expand the celebration of these two men and encourage Americans to study the little-known history of an entire people.


Growing alongside the Harlem Renaissance, Negro History Week uses every platform at its disposal to spread its message.

Woodson and his colleagues set an ambitious agenda for Negro History Week. They provided a K-12 teaching curriculum with photos, lesson plans and posters with important dates and biographical information. In an article published in 1932 titled “Negro History Week: The Sixth Year,” Woodson noted that some white schools were participating in the Negro History Week curricula and that this had improved race relations. He and his colleagues also engaged the community at large with historical performances, banquets, lectures, breakfasts, beauty pageants and parades.

L.D. Reddick, a historian, heard “the father of Negro history” speak as a child in his hometown, Jacksonville, Florida. Everything about Woodson, he remembered, produced an effect that was “electric.” As Reddick wrote, “He handled himself well upon the platform, I thought, moving about very much like a skilled boxer: never hurried, never faltering, sparring skillfully for openings, driving his blows deftly.” Reddick, who would later collaborate with Martin Luther King Jr. on his book about the Montgomery bus boycotts, marveled that Woodson was “easily ... the most impressive speaker that I had ever heard up to that time in my life.”


After gaining in renown, Negro History Week becomes Negro History Month and then Black History Month.

Woodson lectured often in West Virginia, and citizens in that state began celebrating what they called Negro History Month in the 1940s. Woodson’s organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, formed branches across the country, and Negro History Clubs began to appear in high schools. By the time Woodson died in 1950, mayors across the country supported Negro History Week.

In the 1960s, growing political consciousness among Black college students led to a push for more opportunities to study Black history. In February 1969, students and educators at Kent State University proposed the first Black History Month — and celebrated it in February 1970.


President Gerald Ford supports Black History Month as an important element of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations.

In October 1974, just months after assuming the presidency following the resignation of Richard Nixon, Ford met with civil rights leaders, including Vernon Jordan, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height and Jesse Jackson. As The New York Times reported, the leaders were looking for the president to “make a ‘ringing reaffirmation’ of the nation’s commitment to racial justice and moral leadership.”

Less than two years later, in February 1976, Ford did just that. Drawing on the patriotic significance of the bicentennial, he issued a statement on the importance of Black History Month to all Americans. “The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of Black people into every area of national life,” he said. “In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideal envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”


Every president since Ronald Reagan has issued a Black History Month proclamation.

In 2021, President Joe Biden made his first proclamation in support of Black History Month, announcing, “We do so because the soul of our Nation will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist. It is corrosive. It is destructive. It is costly. We are not just morally deprived because of systemic racism; we are also less prosperous, less successful and less secure as a Nation.”

Why does Black History Month in particular, and the study of Black history overall, still matter so much?

“There’s no question that history is and continues to be a battleground. The origin stories that we tell matter a great deal for where we set the bar and how we set the bar going forward,” said Jones, the Johns Hopkins professor. “So when you talk about people like Carter G. Woodson, these are men who knew that if you don’t rewrite the history of Africans and people of African descent, if you don’t rewrite the history of the United States through the lens of Black history, if you don’t make that record and if you don’t make that case, there are [false] stories that will expand and go toward rationalizing and perpetuating racism, exclusion, marginalization and more.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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