Today is February 1, 2017 and that means it’s the start of Black History Month in the United States. This month, I would like to write a series of posts about rarely discussed items in African-American history, so I will start with this topic.
For years, I have wondered why February was designated as Black History Month and when it began.
So many people, myself included, have looked at the month with cynicism. “Of course, they would give [us or black people] the shortest month of the year. Mmhmm …”
But the truth is February was chosen in order to honor two men. Also, there was originally only a week. And the “Father of Black History Month” was a black man named Carter G. Woodson.
Who Was Carter G. Woodson?
Woodson was an educator, writer, and historian who dedicated his life to researching and promoting African-American history.
Early Life and Education
Carter Godwin Woodson was born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, VA. He was the fourth of seven children and his parents, Ann Eliza Riddle Woodson and James Woodson, were former slaves.
During his childhood, Carter G. Woodson worked as a sharecropper and a miner in order to help out his family (Biography).
Woodson didn’t attend school as a child because his family could not afford. Woodson would teach himself the basics until he was 20, when he finally entered high school (Rosenberg). He graduated in less than two years.
After graduating high school, Woodson attended Berea College in Kentucky.
After Berea College, Woodson took some time to travel abroad. At one point, he worked as an education superintendent for the U.S. in the Philippines.
Once returning to the states, Woodson attended the University of Chicago. While at that school, he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in history.
Woodson also attended Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in history in 1912. Woodson was the second black person to earn a degree at Harvard. The first was W.E.B. Du Bois.
Three years after earning his doctorate, Woodson was inspired to further his own studies in Black history after making a fateful trip to Chicago. During his visit, he took part in a three-week celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of slavery.
Woodson was still in Chicago when he co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH; now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH) on September 9, 1915. In 1916, the new organization published the first edition of the Journal of Negro History. The journal was created mainly because Woodson noticed the absence of black history in textbooks.
In 1921, Woodson formed the African-American-owned Associated Publishers Press.
Woodson would also go on to publish more works.
He wrote over a dozen books, including A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The History of the Negro Church (1921), The Negro in Our History (1922), and Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Mis-Education of the Negro was focused on “the Western indoctrination system and African-American self-empowerment.”
In 1937, he created the Negro History Bulletin.
Woodson also wrote literature for elementary and secondary school students.
Mr. Woodson taught at a number of private schools and colleges. He served as Principal at the Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C. And he was a Dean at Howard College and West Virginia Collegiate Institute.
Woodson died in Suitland-Silver Hill, MD on April 3, 1950 (Biography). But in the ensuing years, what he helped to start would evolve into a month-long celebration.
How Did Black History Month Come to Be Recognized?
Carter G. Woodson and the Rev. Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History In September 1915. The organization was dedicated to researching and promoting the history of black Americans and those of African descent.
In 1926, ASNLH sponsored a national Negro History Week. Woodson chose the second week in February to coincide with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays, which are on Feb. 12 and Feb. 14, respectively.
Negro History Week’s evolution into Black History Month started at the local level. Mayors across the country recognized the weekly event each year. It became a monthly celebration on college campuses during the late 1960’s as the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing (History.com).
In 1976, President Gerald F. Ford officially recognized Black History Month. Every president since then has followed suit, but the name was officially changed to “National African American History Month” in 1996 (Green).
Themes and Guidance
Throughout the years, the ASNLH has worked with schools in order to enhance the learning experience.
After the idea of “Negro History Week” quickly caught on across the country, ASNLH helped schoolteachers by producing posters, pictures, and lesson plans to be used during the week. In 1937, ASNLH published the Negro History Bulletin, which focused on the annual theme for Negro History Week (Rosenberg).
In 1928, themes were added to the week (and later the month) in order to steer the educational focus.
- The first theme was “A World Achievement.”
- In 2013, the theme for Black History Month was “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality. That year marked the 150th and 50th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington, respectively.
- In 2014, the theme was “Civil Rights in America.”
- In 2015, the theme was “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.”
- In 2016, the theme was “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memory.”
- The 2017 theme is “The Crisis in Black Education.” (I think this could help guide me with some of my posts.)
- In 2018, the theme will be “African Americans in Times of War.”
The Importance of Black History Month
After receiving his education, Woodson was taken aback by how little information was being dispensed about the contributions of black Americans. And when he saw mentions of blacks in the textbooks, there were normally negative interpretations.
At the heart of the matter, Woodson wanted give all students tools for greater learning and understanding (Swimp).
Woodson once said (via Time):
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.
Did You Know That Other Countries Celebrate Black History Month?
Black History month is celebrated in at least two other countries. In Canada, it is also celebrated in the month of February. The United Kingdom has a black history month in October (Green).
Bellis, Mary. “Carter G Woodson and the Origins of Black History Month.” About.com. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://inventors.about.com/od/blackinventors/a/BlackHistoryMonth.htm>.
Biography.com Editors. “Carter G. Woodson Biography.” Biography.com. Last Updated 5 Jan 2017. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://www.biography.com/people/carter-g-woodson-9536515>.
Green, Treye. “Black History Month: 6 Facts About The Origins Of The Black History Celebration.” International Business Times. 18 Feb 2014. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://www.ibtimes.com/black-history-month-6-facts-about-origins-black-history-celebration-1556467>.
History.com Staff. “Black History Month.” History.com. 2010. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month>.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Black History Month Creation and Overview.” About.com. Last Updated 27 Feb 2016. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://history1900s.about.com/od/1920s/p/blackhistorymonth.htm>.
Swimp, Stacy*. “The Origin and Purpose of Black History Month.” National Center for Public Policy Research. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21NVSwimpBlackHistory90213.html>.
Zorthian, Julia. “Black History Month: How It Started and Why It’s in February.” Time. 29 Jan 2016. Web. Retrieved 1 Feb 2017. <http://time.com/4197928/history-black-history-month>.
* Swimp’s commentary has a partisan slant, but I agree with the point I shared.