Black history carries a richness worth honoring year-round—and Black History Month gives us all a chance to reflect on the incredible contributions and efforts of Black people. February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month in the United States.
As February approaches, now’s the time to brush up on the origins of this commemorative month and discover the many ways your family can continue a legacy that has endured for nearly 100 years.
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Black History Month began with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an African-American historian and scholar considered by many to be the “Father of Black History.” In 1912, Woodson was the first Black American descendent of formerly enslaved people to earn his PhD from Harvard University and the second African American to earn a PhD in history, following W.E.B. Du Bois.
Woodson objected to the way Black people were underrepresented and misrepresented in educational textbooks and curriculums across the country. Rendering Black people as “nothing more than slaves”—instead of as both freed and enslaved human beings who changed the course of American history—perpetuated the false belief that Black people had made no significant contributions to the historical narrative of the United States.
That exclusion also helped justify the racial oppression of Black people through “Jim Crow” or legal racial segregation, lynching campaigns and other mistreatment. If Black people had made no meaningful contributions, the argument went, they did not deserve meaningful rights of citizenship—for example, voting, running for public office or being allowed to attend the same educational institutions as other citizens.
Black people had played an integral role in the economic, social, political and cultural life of the United States, and Woodson became devoted to illuminating those contributions and supporting efforts for Black equality.
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 (ASALH). To commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Woodson and others chose the second week in February to eventually launch the first Negro History Week in 1926. Its goal: to declare the centrality of Black history to all of American history.
Following the launch of Negro History Week, Black communities, churches and college campuses began taking part. Woodson never lost sight of his initial focus: He envisioned a world where Black children would grow up inspired and encouraged by the scientific, academic, economic, political and social achievements as well as cultural contributions of their ancestors, which too often went overlooked.
Woodson passed away in 1950, but the seeds he planted would continue to grow well into the 20th century. His legacy and efforts gained greater attention following the momentum and seismic cultural shifts of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. President Gerald Ford officially recognized the entire month of February as Black History Month in 1976, marking the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week.
Honoring and celebrating Black history is a necessary step to imagining the possibilities of Black futures. In fact, it’s one reason some refer to the month of February as “Black Futures Month.”
Today, people celebrate the contributions and history of Black people around the world in places like Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and countries throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Each year’s theme is different: In 2021, the focus is on the representation, identity and diversity of Black families.
Black history is American and human history. This simple fact makes the story of the collective Black experience a story that belongs to all of us.
However we choose to celebrate and honor Black History Month in our own lives, reflecting on and learning from the Black experience helps propel us toward a more equitable future for everyone.