Origins of Black History Month: Who founded it?

Black History Month has begun! We answer the Internet's top questions like who founded it, which president first recognized it, and why it's in February.
President Reagan Black History Month
President Reagan Black History Month / Mark Reinstein/GettyImages

For a website that celebrates the study of history, it would be remiss of us here at Ask Everest not to honor Black History Month, which celebrates a critical part of American History. Early Americans actively suppressed knowledge of Black history, either through minimizing the accomplishments of Black men and women or through covering up their own cruelties. We must work to undo their historical distortions.

This month, Ask Everest will be releasing articles focusing on Black exceptionalism as well as discussing major historical events that frequently are not documented in standard American history books. We hope to maintain this coverage throughout the year, because while Black History Month gives us a time to give special focus to these events, it should not be the only time Black history is acknowledged.

For today, we want to take a moment to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about Black History Month and its origins.

When is Black History Month in the United States?

Black History Month takes place for the entire month of February in the United States, which generally extends from February 1 through February 28. In 2024 (and other leap years), it extends to the 29th.

Do other countries have Black History Month?

While Black History Month was created in the United States to specifically explore the contributions and perspectives of African Americans, it also provides an opportunity to talk about other consequences of the African diaspora.

When European powers began abducting Africans to use as slave labor, they fundamentally changed the history of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Thus, it had a massive impact beyond just US history. This should be acknowledged by other countries as well.

Currently, some version of Black History Month is celebrated in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, and Germany. In addition, several African countries (including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ivory Coast, Comores, Senegal and Cameroon) celebrated Black History Month in 2020.

Who first came up with the idea for Black History Month?

Long before it became a government-recognized event, academics recognized the need for more awareness to be raised around significant moments in history for African Americans. For many people, history has more to do with what they were taught than what truly happened, which makes it critical that we give extra attention to subjects that are often underrepresented in history curriculums.

Historian Carter G. Woodson was at the heart of a movement that eventually became Black History Month. Fifty years after the 13th Amendment ended slavery, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) to "promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community."

In 1925, Woodson and the ASNLH announced what they called "Negro History Week," which would take place on the second week of February the next year. This timing was chosen to include the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Per the ASALH, these were already common days for celebration in the Black community, leading to greater levels of participation.

In 1926, the NAACP awarded Woodson with the Spingarn Medal for his contributions to Black history and widespread racial equality. By spreading awareness of the role Black men and women played in the development of the United States, it would be harder to claim that white men built the country on their own. Woodson is now popularly known as the Father of Black History.

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

Carter Woodson

As the Black community became more prominent in urban spaces, the week-long celebration became increasingly popular, integrating into school curriculums and even being endorsed by political leaders.

Why did Black History celebrations expand into a full month?

While Woodson began the event as a week-long celebration, he always believed that learning Black history needed to be a long-term practice. He advocated both that Black history be taught on a regular basis within American history and that it should have specialized scholars, as other sub-sections of history do.

The hope was that, eventually, "Negro History Week" would not be necessary, as Black history would be more publicly available. However, that required that people continue to draw attention to it in the meantime. It was wonderful for people to know about Frederick Douglass, but there were so many other people and events that deserved recognition as well.

"Now, we gather to celebrate Black History Month, and from our earliest days, black history has been American history. We’re the slaves who quarried the stone to build this White House; the soldiers who fought for our nation’s independence, who fought to hold this union together, who fought for freedom of others around the world. We’re the scientists and inventors who helped unleash American innovation. We stand on the shoulders not only of the giants in this room, but also countless, nameless heroes who marched for equality and justice for all of us. "

Barack Obama, 2016

The expansion to a month was intended as a step in the right direction. He argued that eventually, it should be "Negro History Year." However, that was not to say that Black history should be taught instead of traditional American history. Ideally, they should be taught together, so that people knew just as much about something like the Harlem Renaissance as they did the Salem Witch Trials.

Because that has not happened as hoped, Black History Month is needed to show everybody how much depth there is in Black history. The longer time period allows for more education opportunities, which hopefully will help convince those in charge to properly integrate Black History into the larger study of American History.

What president officially recognized Black History Month?

Within just a few decades, there were some popular celebrations of February as Black History Month. However, the official celebration remained just a week long until the 1970s. Rather than extending the event themselves, the ASALH fought for national recognition, where they could have more widespread influence.

Black History Week was first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the original celebration. While he discussed it in its original form, this presidential acknowledgment was the push needed to shift from one week to a full month.

The next year was the bicentennial celebration of the United States. While many people only wanted to celebrate the country, others felt it was necessary to acknowledge the darker parts of the nation's history. As a way of prioritizing the role of Black History within American History, Gerald Ford became the first President to celebrate Black History Month.

"Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens.

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals 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.

I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us."

Gerald Ford, 1976

Since then, every President has made a proclamation honoring Black History Month.

In 1986, Congress passed a joint resolution naming February Black History Month. This solidified its importance in the United States, as legal acknowledgement always holds more power than a simple speech. It has continued ever since.

Why does Black History Month matter?

The simplest answer to this question is that it matters because Black history is American history, and because Black people deserve the opportunity to learn more about their heritage. But to explain why this designated month is needed, it might help to look at it through a metaphor.

In many ways, the study of Black History is similar to the issue of segregation. In the past, there was virtually no acknowledgment of Black contributions to history, like there was no legal recognition of Black people as citizens.

Through time and advocacy, this improved slightly. This might be compared to the development of schools and other public spaces for the Black community. Space now existed for the study of Black history, but it was seen as something completely distinct from "American" history. But as with society, separate study was absolutely not equal.

Carter Woodson's ideal situation would include full integration of history. Black history would be a sub-discipline, just as something like economic history could be a sub-discipline. However, those who had a broad, introductory knowledge of history would learn Black history as a relevant part of American and World History.

"It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. 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 hatred and religious prejudice."

Carter Woodson

If that ideal is ever met, then Black History Month may no longer be necessary. But that ideal does not exist today. It would be considered irresponsible to teach American History without discussing things like the American Revolution or World War 2. It is as irresponsible (or more so) to exclude Black history and perspectives from the popular understanding of American history.

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