History of Black History Month
In 1926 African American historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February would be “Negro History Week.” Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:
“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.” The second week was chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass ( February 14), dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.
From its conception, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching in the nation’s public schools of the history of American blacks. The first Negro History Week was met with a lukewarm response, gaining the cooperation of the Departments of Education of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.. Despite its limited acceptance the event was regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association,” and plans continued to make the event an annual celebration.
By 1929 The Journal of Negro History noted that with only two exceptions, officials with the State Departments of Educations of “every state with considerable Negro population” had made the event known to that state’s teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event.” Churches also played a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week, with the mainstream and black press aiding in the publicity effort.
Negro History Week was met with enthusiastic response, prompting the creation of black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.
The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.
In 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial, the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. President Gerald Ford spoke on the occasion, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month is also celebrated in the United Kingdom and in Canada.