February provides an opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and reflect on the life-changing contributions that those of African descent have made to the world. Interestingly, the history of Black History Month itself provides a window into why it is so important to know, remember, and celebrate black history.
Who Started Black History Month?
Black History Month came onto the American scene in the meek clothing of “Negro History Week,” which was held during the second week of February (7–14) in 1926. It was designed by Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), a native of Virginia and the son of formerly enslaved parents. Having once worked as a coal miner, Woodson went on to earn two degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. He also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).
The date for Negro History Week was chosen to encompass the birthdays of two men—United States president Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Both had long been honored in the African American community as pivotal to black freedom.
Woodson’s idea initially met a lukewarm reception, but over time its popularity grew. Under the influence of black American freedom movements in the 1960s and 1970s, “Negro History Week” quickly became “Black History Month,” expressing new racial pride and interest in African American culture and history.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford became the first United States president to officially recognize Black History Month, with a proclamation he issued during America’s bicentennial. Subsequent presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have all issued Black History Month proclamations.
Where Is Black History Month Celebrated?
Activists for racial equality in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa helped spread a new racial pride called “black consciousness” around the world. This movement inspired the creation of Black History Month celebrations in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as countries in Africa and throughout the Caribbean.
These observances have been tailored to the experiences of black people in each respective nation. For example, Black History Month in the United Kingdom was initiated in 1987 by a Ghanaian-born immigrant named Akyaaba Addai Sebo. Sebo proposed October as their month of celebration because that is when traditional African leaders meet to settle differences.
Why Is It Important to Study Black History?
Black history is important because black history is American history. It is not a separate subject. We highlight black history to continue to understand how black narratives are tightly woven and integrated into the narrative of the United States as a whole. The same is true worldwide.
Negro History Week was originally about reaching black children in public schools. Dr. Woodson decried what he called “the miseducation of the Negro” in schools relying on textbooks that either ignored or distorted black history with ugly racial stereotypes. This omission and distortion left both black and white children unaware of the tremendous contributions of African people to America and world civilizations across time.
Two results have been low self-esteem among many African Americans and justification for racial discrimination in America. Negro History Week was a call to overcome these problems by teaching accurate and uplifting portrayals of black achievement. In the words of the first black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal (1827–1829), African Americans must “plead our own cause.”
Black History Month has increased the understanding of African American history and culture by providing educational resources for teachers and promoting collections, exhibits, and resources that tell the incredible stories of African Americans who have changed the world.
Why Do We Celebrate Black History Month?
Black History Month highlights the lasting contributions of black men and women in society. Woodson felt that this remembering was important and that such an education would motivate others to rise to their highest potential. Now, we dedicate an entire month to recognize the meaningful impact that individuals of African descent have made to enrich American culture, expand democracy, strengthen families, and make a better society for all.
The arrival of kidnapped Africans in Virginia in 1619 marked the beginning of the need to reclaim the dignity of black life in America through celebration of black history. For the next nearly 250 years, documentation of black life in America was dominated by bills of sale, estate inventories, and laws defining blacks as slave property. Blacks were declared to have no history and were considered less than human. They were taught to despise their own physical characteristics and forget their African culture.
After emancipation, educated African Americans continued to teach about black achievements and history as evidence of black humanity and equality. These teachings inspired other socially marginalized groups such as women and Latinos in search of social equality to celebrate their history, heritage, and achievements in a special month.
Black History and Genealogy
Today, the future of Black History Month is limitless thanks to new tech tools and digital communication. The arrival of DNA testing and internet-based genealogy websites has revolutionized Woodson’s work in ways he never imagined. Family historians dive into archives, online newspapers, and census reports to stretch the traditional boundaries of history. They discover amazing life stories of their ancestors—ordinary people who did extraordinary things. These stories inspire new generations and destroy old stereotypes.
Old lines of broken relationships are being restored as African Americans use DNA to connect with descendants of their African relatives. Some descendants of former slave owners share family records to help descendants of the once enslaved learn about their ancestors.
Providing free access to millions of documents containing valuable information in its African American Genealogy hub, FamilySearch is at the forefront of promoting new horizons for the discovery of black family history.
Undoubtedly, this effort helps build connections across barriers of historical bitterness. Time itself is not necessarily a healer, but it does offer opportunities for healing. Black History Month can provide healing opportunities for families, communities, and nations.
For more information on how you and your family can make the most of this month, head to FamilySearch’s African American Genealogy hub.