This Week in History: The Beginnings of Black History Month

Black History Month is a month of remembrance that allows Americans to revere and uplift the Black community and mark some of the community’s many fantastic achievements. It’s a constant source of inspiration and resilience through turmoil and triumph. But how did the celebration of Black History Month come to be? Read on to learn more about our nation’s first Black History Month and what lies ahead for the future of this celebration.

The origins of Black History Month date back to 1915, when historian and author Carter G. Woodson founded the organization now known as the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson traveled to Washington, D.C., where a national celebration was being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of emancipation. As a result, Woodson created an exhibition celebrating Black history that would go on to be viewed by thousands. Reports state that up to six to twelve thousand attendees waited for their turns to see the exhibit. Having seen the popularity of this event, Woodson would take advantage of this momentum and transform it into a movement.

Around the 1920s, Woodson began contacting Black civic organizations to promote the achievements of the African-American community. He was of particular encouragement to his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, who he urged to continue the work of highlighting Black history. The organization quickly responded with a nationwide African-American History and Literature Week. This was an impressive effort, but Woodson wanted even more. Through ASALH, Woodson established the first national History Week for the African-American community in February 1926.

Woodson purposely chose the week in February because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. This was also in alignment with a longstanding tradition in the African-American community. Since the assassination of Lincoln, the Black community would hold week-long commemorations to celebrate his birthday. Beginning in the 1890s, the African-American community also began including Frederick Douglass in these celebrations. Leaning into this history, Woodson purposefully selected the start of History Week to continue a long-held and well-established tradition.

Woodson’s ultimate intention for these weeks of commemoration was to transform them into a daily act of education in schools and other educational settings. By the 1940s, there was a push in public schools and different civic settings to continue teaching and celebrating Black history. Efforts for established Black history educational efforts continued to grow and evolve throughout the Civil Rights movement. By the end of the 1960s, a week of commemoration was transformed into a month, creating the Black History Month we know and celebrate today. Since its conception, the ASALH has set the theme for Black History Month, and this tradition continues today. Since the 1970s, each President, regardless of party, has issued a proclamation endorsing the year’s theme.

In 1986, Congress passed a resolution declaring February as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month, and further called upon the President of the United States to call upon the populous to join in on this celebration. Black History Month allows Americans to celebrate African-American figures throughout our nation’s past. From religious leaders to innovators in the sciences and everything in between, February is now devoted to all things about Black culture and life.

The theme for Black History Month 2023 is Black Resistance. Throughout history, African-Americans have endured and resisted historical oppression. Despite these barriers, the African-American community has continued to survive and thrive. Whether through the establishment of educational institutions or medical facilities, Black Americans have found ways to continue forward and provide the community with needed resources. The month celebrates accomplishments in many arenas, including music, the sciences, politics, education, sports, the arts, and more. Continuing this legacy of greatness, the theme of Black Resistance continues to forge the fight ahead in the face of oppression. You can read more about this year’s initiatives on the ASLAH website here: ASALH – Black History Themes.

As we gear up for this year’s Black History Month celebration, may we appreciate the pioneers and advocates who allowed this moment of remembrance. Although a single month does not do justice to the incredible legacy of the African-American community in the United States, it lets the public take the critical first steps to appreciate how richly this community has benefited our country fully. Therefore, as we anticipate what will come during this year’s Black History Month, may we take a moment to acknowledge the vision of its founder, its proponents, and all that is to come.

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