February is Black History Month (African-American History Month) in America. A tradition since around 1976, Black History Month is an annual celebration of African-American achievement and history. Similar observances are also held in Canada, Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands. In Europe though, Black History Month is observed in October. So why is February Black History Month in the United States?
Why Is February Black History Month?
Every US president has recognized February as Black History Month since 1976, but its history actually goes all the way back to the 1920s. And it’s origins were quite humble.
It all started with a historian named Carter G. Woodson. The son of former slaves, Woodson rightly noted that African-American history and contributions were not only overlooked and ignored, but actively suppressed in textbooks and by teachers. So he proposed the idea of a “Negro History Week” which was to be observed the second week of each February.
The Second Week of February
Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History chose the second week of February thanks to two prominent birthdays–both of which fall within that time frame.
Nothing too complicated, February 12th was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, while the 14th was Frederick Douglass’. Both birthdays were already celebrated by black communities in America anyway, which is why Woodson chose this week. We won’t go super in-depth on why those two men are significant in black communities; but we’ll do a quick rundown.
For those who know a thing or two about Lincoln, you probably know about the Emancipation Proclamation. Which, while it never actually legally ended slavery, it was a big cornerstone in getting that done. The proclamation was made in 1863, while slavery was officially abolished in America in 1865.
There’s a lot of context around the Emancipation Proclamation being a tool for Lincoln to galvanize the North during the American Civil War as well. But it still played a big role in ending the slavery of African-Americans. Hence why it’s celebrated now.
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Frederick Douglass’ story of escaping slavery shouldn’t be understated either. Becoming a national abolitionist leader, he was often used as a symbol against slave-holders who claimed African-Americans couldn’t become literate.
If you’re wondering why Woodson didn’t want to go further, there aren’t really records of that. But it seems like he believed choosing a longer stretch of time would inhibit the traction “Negro History Week” could gain within America.
Becoming Black History Month
Before Black History Month became a month long affair, “Negro History Week” was mostly about education. The main focus was promoting black history in public schools–an area that the American public school system still struggles with.
In 1969, a whole Black History Month was proposed by students and staff at Kent State University in Ohio. It was observed the following year.
Six years after that (1976), Black History Month was recognized, officially, by then President Gerald Ford. With that executive recognition, it began being observed all over the country.
By the late 1980s, Black History Month had gained traction in other parts of the world, and it continues to be an important, necessary, and relevant observance today.
Quiz yourself on more Civil Rights Movements here: Civil Rights Era Match-Up