Each and every February, we see countless promotions for Black History Month. We celebrate the African Americans who have played such an integral role in shaping our nation — inventors, explorers, scientists, poets and many more. We hear names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson and, more recently, President Barack Obama. Our children learn more about the African American community and all of their contributions to our nation’s history. Colleges host speakers that highlight African American history.
We learn a lot and we celebrate and pay tribute to African American history — but what else is there? The answer is a lot.
While we’re busy soaking up information on African American history and many of the big names in the list of African American firsts, often our focus is shifted away from the actual history of Black History Month. Do you know who created this month-long celebration? How long has it been around? Why is it celebrated in February? Why was it created in the first place? The answers to these questions are a big part of what makes Black History Month so special, and yet we rarely explore the story.
A Man and His Mission
We have a man by the name of Dr. Carter G. Woodson to thank for giving us what is known today as Black History Month. And his story is an inspiring one.
Woodson was born in 1875 in West Virginia. His parents were both former slaves. They emphasized the importance of education — something he would carry with him his entire life. He spent his childhood in the Kentucky coal mines, until he attended high school at the age of 20. In just two years, he graduated and went on to Berea College, where he earned his degree in literature — again, in only two years.
From there, he went on to earn his doctorate from Harvard, and was the second African American in history to do so. He went on to have a career in education, serving as a teacher, principal and supervisor of schools.
Throughout his own education and the education of his students, he was disappointed to find that the African American population was overwhelmingly ignored in history books. And the few times the population was mentioned, their inferior class was often noted — totally misrepresenting and minimizing the role African Americans played in our nation’s history.
Perhaps it was a spark from his parents’ emphasis on education, or maybe it was just a combination of his ambition and education. Whatever it was, he knew something had to be done. Someone needed to write African Americans into our nation’s history and begin reeducating the country.
Was it a long shot? Absolutely. But he was up for the challenge.
In 1915, three years after Woodson earned his doctorate, he traveled to Chicago to participate in an Illinois-sponsored national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation. He had his own display, but it was the crowd of thousands of African Americans, who traveled across the country for the event, that inspired him. Six to twelve thousand people waited outside the DuSable Museum of African American History for their turn to see the exhibits showcasing the accomplishments their people had made since the end of slavery.
The celebration went on for three weeks, and when it ended, Woodson had a clear mission.
Before leaving Chicago, and after the celebration had ended, he met A.L. Jackson and three others at the Wabash YMCA to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), his first step in creating a place for African Americans in our nation’s history. One year later, he founded the Journal of Negro History, a publication that he and other intellectuals in the African American community published, hoping others would spread the word.
Years later, he published a book entitled “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” As time went on, he and other researchers continued to uncover more and more achievements made by African Americans in history. He encouraged civic organizations and his fraternity brothers (Omega Psi Phi) to help spread the word about all of the research they were uncovering.
His goals grew as time went on. While he acknowledged the importance of having a place in history books for these stories of African Americans, his book hints at a deeper goal. In addition to getting African American history into the history books, and accurately represented, he also hoped that sharing these accomplishments would inspire and increase the self-esteem of African Americans, and would gain more respect from the white population, ultimately improving race relations.
Negro History Week
Woodson’s fraternity brothers created Negro Achievement Week a few years later, and they made a significant impact, but Woodson’s ambition drove him to make an even greater impact. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History took over the responsibility of creating and spreading the word about achievements in history by African Americans.
As a result, in February of 1926, he declared the second week Negro History Week.
Why celebrate during the second week of February? It was a new initiative that needed to pick up steam, and ever since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the African American community, along with many Republicans, had been celebrating his birthday on February 12. African Americans across the country had also been celebrating Frederick Douglass’ birthday, which fell just two days later, on February 14. By harnessing the energy of those pre-existing celebrations, he was simply asking for people to extend their celebrations to a full week, increasing the chances of his weeklong celebration catching on.
But it wasn’t just about the celebration for Woodson. He saw people coming together to celebrate these two men and hoped to ultimately bring people together to celebrate the African American community. While he appreciated both Lincoln and Douglass, he aspired to lead people to see that the real impact was made by the individual people — the countless African Americans who had contributed so much of their lives to the improvement of human civilization. A few of them were well known, while many others who were not.
The Celebration Sweeps the Nation
Throughout the next decade, Woodson saw his dreams begin to turn into a reality. Suddenly, Negro History week was present in schools and across the country. Black history clubs began to form and teachers were requesting materials to use as they taught students. Even progressive-minded people in the white community took a stand to support this new initiative.
As a result, the 1920s became the decade of the “New Negro,” the name given to the proud, post-World War I generation. Self-confidence began to improve within the African American community. Over one million African Americans from the rural South moved into the big cities across the country due to urbanization and industrialization.
The demand for this new celebration — and education regarding African Americans in history — was everything Woodson had hoped for, but it was tough to keep up. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History did their best to stay on top of it.
Each year, they set a theme and provided lessons, plays, posters, pictures and other supplies. To further expand the reach and focus on the re-education of the nation, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History formed several branches from the East Coast to the West Coast. Freedom Schools added African American history into their lessons in an attempt to encourage social change during the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
The movement Woodson created was nothing less than a wholesale national increase in education that became a part of an even larger goal: to transform race relations.
And his success continued. Mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations. As the recognition of this initiative continued to grow, so did empowerment of the African American community. Many became more confident and comfortable in their own skin, truly believing for the first time that being African American is indeed beautiful. That inspiration and empowerment is exactly what Woodson alluded to in his book when he first began.
Was it a direct result of the awareness of the great contributions the African American community made in history? We may never know. What we do know is this was all Woodson ever dreamed he would help create.
While the spark of this movement was exactly what Woodson had dreamed of, it didn’t come without its challenges. As the popularity and demand grew, by the 1930s, everyone was jumping on board — many simply because it was the “cool” thing to do. Woodson wasn’t happy with the number of intellectual imposters that were appearing and attempting to take advantage of this national movement and interest in African American history.
He did his best to educate teachers so they wouldn’t innocently invite one of these imposters to speak and mislead a classroom full of students. But there wasn’t much he could do about the publishers that previously ignored African American history, and now were doing everything in their power to get books regarding African American topics on the shelves — many of them with a total disregard for quality.
The fact that many decided to take advantage of the movement, through claiming false expertise and creating products, was frustrating for Woodson. He appreciated the attention the weeklong celebration was getting, but his ultimate goal was to see African American history fully integrated into education. He saw this celebration as a stepping stone to raise awareness, increase self-worth and improve race relations with the ultimate goal of not needing the celebration at all — a true sign that African American history was fully integrated.
Remember: it was his own education and career that motivated him when he first began back in 1915. At one point, he spoke of a shift from “Negro History Week” to “Negro History Year.”
Woodson witnessed his movement take off, but he didn’t live to see the official shift from a weeklong celebration to a whole month. He may have guessed that it would head in that direction as a result of time he spent in West Virginia. The African American community in West Virginia was ahead of us — they began celebrating “Negro History Month” in the 1940s.
Woodson’s Death and Legacy
Woodson died in 1950, and fifteen years later, the month-long celebration began to catch on.
A cultural activist in Chicago by the name of Fredrick H. Hammurabi began a month-long celebration. A few short years later, young African Americans on college campuses learned more about their links to Africa and became passionate about the cause. It was only a matter of time until many of them shifted their celebrations from “Negro History Week” to “Negro History Month.” As more and more of those younger individuals became involved with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, they encouraged the leaders of the association to amend the celebration in an effort to keep up with the times.
It wasn’t until 1976, twenty-six years after Woodson’s death, that the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History officially shifted the celebration from a week to a month. The shift happened during the celebration of the country’s bicentennial. While the expanded timeframe still captures the birthdays of Lincoln and Douglass, it also captures the following significant moments in African American history:
- W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights leader and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born.
- The 15th Amendment was passed, granting African Americans the right to vote.
- The first African American U.S. Senator took his oath of office.
- The NAACP was founded.
February is packed with benchmarks in African American history, so it makes sense that February is recognized as Black History Month. But what would Woodson have to say about our month-long celebration? We aren’t so sure. It’s certainly an accomplishment to have his initiative alive and well over 100 years later, but would he be disappointed that we’re still celebrating during one month and not the whole year? Would he see that as a sign that Black History Month has turned into something he didn’t intend? We’ll never know.
Celebrate Woodson’s Legacy With Black History Gifts
As you reflect on Black History Month this year, we hope you’ll remember everything that Woodson did to spark this celebration of culture. Celebrate by taking some time to learn more about the African Americans who played such a vital role in our nation’s history. Be inspired by Woodson’s dedication to the cause he was so passionate about.
There’s a lot we can learn from Black History Month, but there’s also a lot we can learn from Woodson’s story. We should all aspire to have a passion and ambition like Woodson’s.
We are excited to have the opportunity to create and sell products that reflect this rich history. African American Expressions™ is the world’s largest black-owned gift and greeting card company. We know the struggles African Americans face every single day, but we also know the pleasures of family, friends, community and the strength we can take from each other and from our faith.
If you’re searching for black history gifts, or any type of gift, please browse the products on our website. We hope our gifts will give you a sense of pride and encouragement and remind you of the people, like Woodson, who sparked a movement that continues today.