Understanding the Origins of Black History Month

Contributed by Lauren Roberts, Program Specialist

The United States has observed the month of February as Black History Month for over 45 years, since its first national celebration in 1976. Yet the historical roots of Black History Month, and the field of black history itself, can be traced even further back in time to the landscape of early twentieth century America. To fully appreciate Black History Month’s historical and cultural significance, we must first understand events and people from over a century ago.

In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization still in existence to this day as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The mission of the Association was, per its Statement of Purpose, “to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture to the global community.” Dr. Woodson was a professor and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University, and is regarded as one of the earliest known scholars of the African Diaspora and the African-American community. Likewise, Moorland was a prominent minister, civic leader, and community executive, and devoted his life to the advancement of several Black social organizations.

In 1916, one year after founding the ASNLH with Moorland, Woodson began The Journal of Negro History (known today as The Journal of African American History), a quarterly academic journal published by the University of Chicago Press. Like the ASNLH, the purpose of the Journal was to study, preserve, and chronicle the history of America’s Black community. Woodson felt strongly that Black history should be taught nationwide, and he fought to have the subject taught in the nation’s public school system. Yet as time went on, Woodson observed that his colleagues, as well as organizations such as the American Historical Association, did not harbor any serious interest in studying or preserving Black history, nor did they seem interested in including it in school curriculums.

Thus, in 1926, Woodson established Negro History Week, which is commonly regarded as the precursor to Black History Month. He chose the second week of February for this observance, as it coincided with the births of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and Frederick Douglass on February 14th.

Woodson recognized that this initiative was vital not just for the broader study of black history, but for the long-term prosperity of the African American community. Per his autobiography, Woodson states: “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.”

Following the 1930s, Negro History Week gained more widespread popularity throughout the United States and even spread to many places worldwide. Yet, it wasn’t until over 40 years later that Negro History Week evolved into its modern iteration as Black History Month.

Owing largely to the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, Black educators and students at Kent State University first conceptualized Black History Month in 1969. The first official celebration took place one year later in the winter of 1970, as reported in The Kent Stater, Kent State’s independent student newspaper.

Six years later, Gerald Ford formally recognized the annual observance of Black History Month during a speech celebrating the United States’ Bicentennial Year. His full address, which emphasized the need to preserve and understand black history as an integral part of U.S. history, was as follows:

In the Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of Black Americans to our national life and culture.

One hundred years ago, to help highlight these achievements, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. We are grateful to him today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.

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.