Dr. Carter Woodson and the history of Black History Month

In 1915, the city of Chicago, Illinois hosted a national celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The celebration, which focused on the advances of African Americans since the destruction of slavery, drew an estimated crowd of over 12,000 people and lasted for three weeks.

Although largely overlooked today, the 1915 Chicago semicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation is noted as the singularity that set into motion a sequence of events that led to the creation of National African American History Month. It was this event that inspired a group of black academics and intellectuals to establish a program to further the standing of African Americans in American society.

Within a month after the semicentennial celebration, the zealous group formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), and the next year they established an academic journal, “The Journal of Negro History.” Although filled with brilliant and able scholars, the ASNLH and related ventures have long been associated with its chief architect, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson, perhaps the most important African American historian of his generation, possessed a unique educational experience for his time. Born to former slaves in Virginia in 1875, Woodson did not attain his high school diploma until he was 22.

The lateness of his education does not appear to have affected his resolve, however. After receiving his diploma, Woodson attended some of the nation’s greatest institutions of higher education before attaining his doctorate in history from Harvard University. After attaining his degree, Woodson accepted a position in the history department of Howard University in Washington D.C.

After the founding of the ASNLH, Woodson set to work building a movement in America’s black community. He consistently and constantly urged African American civic leaders—as well as his former Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers—to promote the findings of his organization.

In 1924, Omega Psi Phi responded to Woodson’s request by creating Negro History and Literature Week—later renamed Negro Advancement Week. Although the fraternity’s impact was significant, Woodson wished for greater effect and realized that the ASNLH would have to be the instrument through which the change would occur. So, in 1926, Woodson sent out a press release initiating what he called Negro History Week, an event that would take place in February of that year.

Woodson picked the month of February for two interrelated reasons. First, two monumental figures associated with the African American community—Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln—both had birthdays in the month. Second, many black Americans had been celebrating the birthdays of the two men since the late 1890s, and Woodson was happy to build upon a tradition that already involved celebrating major figures in black history.

From the outset, Woodson instituted the week-long observance as a way to celebrate African American contributions to the American story. Indicative in Woodson’s view was the hope that the holiday would help ease the tumultuous nature of race relations in the country.

Negro History Week became a huge success for Woodson, the ASNLH, and the nation at large. Within the first several years of the Week, the Association struggled to keep up with demands for study materials for schools that wished to celebrate it.

As time marched on, the Week increased in popularity and helped to contribute to a renaissance of sorts in black American life. Progressive schools began creating Negro History Clubs, and mayors of major cities issued Negro History Week proclamations. By the 1940s, blacks in West Virginia were celebrating black history during the entirety of February, and black history was beginning to make its way into curriculums in public schools throughout the country.

When Carter Woodson died in 1950, he assumed that after his passing the celebration weeks would come to an end, a prospect that he hoped for. Woodson believed that black history was not simply a one week, or even one month, event. For him the overall goal was to implement in the minds of people a year-long black history which would constantly resonate with relevancy to the human story.

After Woodson’s death, many of the younger intellectuals working in the ASNLH, as well as the general public, began pushing for the week-long celebration to be extended to a month-long event. In 1976, these demands were met when President Gerald R. Ford became the first president to designate February as Black History Month, a tradition that has continued ever since.

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