The month of February is dedicated to promoting the achievements of African Americans and recognizing Black histories. Still, much of the public doesn’t know the origins of the annual holiday and why its roots hold significance.
Black history is American history and, for a long time, has been neglected to be taught accurately in US classrooms. The history of African Americans has been limited to an identity of enslavement, but it is much more than that. From inventions to everyday contributions, African Americans have established the success of today’s America.
Here’s what to know about the origins of Black History Month and how far it has come.
“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” (Carter G. Woodson, The Journal of Negro History).
Carter G. Woodson (December 1875 – April 1950)
Known as the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson was a distinguished author, editor, publisher, and historian who believed that African Americans should celebrate and understand their profound heritage. Woodson would earn both his bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Chicago before completing his doctorate from Harvard in 1912. It should be noted that Woodson was the second African American to earn his doctorate at Harvard after W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1915, Woodson would create The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now renamed as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The ASALH is the oldest historical society established to promote, preserve, and expand African American History.
Woodson was inspired to launch the ASALH because of the three-week national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. Several thousands of African Americans from across the country would travel to Chicago’s Coliseum to observe a display of Black achievements post-slavery.
The Journal of African American History, formerly The Journal of Negro History, was a scholarly publication that Woodson and several other Black scholars founded in 1916 to continuously record Black history, life, and culture. The academic journal publishing led Woodson and his college Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, to create Negro History and Literature Week in 1924. The impact was well received by the local community. Yet, Woodson had his sights on a global outreach of popularizing Black history and thus, decided to announce Negro History Week in February 1926.
Negro History Week Poster, February 13, 1944. Source: Special Collections, Library of Virginia
Woodson selected February due to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, which are on the 12th and the 14th of the month. Both Douglass and Lincoln played a significant role in ending slavery. Douglass was an escaped slave who became a notable activist and leader in the abolitionist movement. Lincoln, who was America’s 16th President, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared the freedom of slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.
Moreover, Woodson chose February because he wanted to continue the tradition of celebrating both figures and sought to honor both figures by expanding the study of black history and achievement.
How far it’s come
Today Negro History Week is now Black History Month thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and pioneers like Frederic H. Hammurabi, who recognized the holiday long before President Gerald Ford would endorse it officially in 1976.
The recognition of African Americans has gone a long way since Woodson’s time but has yet to be given sufficient justice. African Americans are often reminded of how unfair the system is in America through everyday injustices. Blacks have continued to be given unequal representation from the education system to the corporate system to the political systems. Thus, in order for equality to be present, African Americans must be continuously admired and not limited to a span of one month.
To learn more about the study of African American Life and History, click here.
Mohamed Eltayeb can be found on Twitter or contacted through email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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