Monday, February 12, 2018

The History of Black History Month

February is Black History Month, but did you know that this celebration was first held in 1915 at the Chicago Coliseum.  The celebration was originally called the Lincoln Jubilee and was held 50 years after Lincoln passed the emancipation of the slaves.  It was sponsored by the state of Illinois.  One of the participants was Carter Woodson, who had a doctorate from Harvard. He and other exhibitors had a black history display.  The celebration lasted 3 weeks and thousands of people came.  Afterwards Woodson met with other people they decided to form an organization to promote scientific study of black life and history. They called it the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).  In 1920 Woodson urged black civic organizations to promote achievements that researchers were uncovering.  In 1924 Woodson’s old fraternity created Negro History and Literature Week which was renamed Negro Achievement Week.

Woodson sent out a press release for the first Negro History Week in February 1926.  He chose the month of February because Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays are celebrated during February.  Woodson did not believe in celebrating the lives of only two men but the black community “should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.”  After World War I there were many black people who had migrated to the North and were doing well because of urbanization and industrialization.  There was a lot of racial pride and consciousness.  Woodson expanded the (ANSLH) and established the Negro History Bulletin in 1937 at the urging of Mary McLeod Bethune.   She was an educator, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for starting a private school for African-American students in Florida.

During the 1940s the study of black history expanded.   In the South, black history was often taught to supplement U.S. history in schools.  It is said that there was one teacher who would hide Woodson’s textbook beneath his desk in order to not anger the principal.  Many years before his death in 1950, Woodson believed that the weekly celebrations of black history would eventually come to an end.  Woodson never intended black history to be about black firsts and a parade of black icons.  He intended the observance to combat institutional hatred of black people and this new information would be included in the teaching of American history.

In the 1960s Negro History Week was on its way to becoming Black History Month.  In the 1940s, West Virginia, where Woodson made speeches often, black people, began to celebrate Negro History Month.  Frederick H. Hammaurabi, a cultural activist in Chicago, also began celebrating Negro History Month in the mid-1960’s. As black college students became more aware of links to Africa, Black History Month began to replace Negro History Week.  In 1976 on the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week Black History Month was celebrated nationally.  We now call it African American History Month.

Since the 1970s every President has issued a proclamation for endorsing the ASNLH African American’s annual theme of achievement.

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian