The Origins of Black History Month

Imani Wilson, Artist and Curriculum Development Strategist

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in the second week of February. The historian’s goal was to further enshrine the Black communities’ ongoing observations of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and Frederick Douglass (February 14th). By 1929, Woodson reported that the Departments of Education in states with significant Black communities were teaching African American history, often using materials created by the Journal for Negro History–a publication Woodson founded. Black Churches also engaged in efforts to inform and educated Black citizens about their history. According to Woodson, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.”

In the 1960s, the Black Power Movement emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, taking its name from a speech given by Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). African Americans reclaimed the once-pejorative word “Black” as an identifier and a new celebration of African American people and culture. Black Pride was born, perhaps best summed up in the lyrics and feel of James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

Chuck D, the founder and frontman of Public Enemy, was in the second grade when “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was released. He recalls: “James Brown singlehandedly took a lost and confused nation of  people and bonded them with a fix of words, music and attitude. ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was the phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969 and the rest of my life.”

In 1969, Black educators and Black United Students of Kent State University in Ohio proposed that the Negro History Week be extended to full month. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State in 1970.

Black History did not begin with slavery, and includes cultures that lie beyond the borders of the United States. The African Diaspora is a rich source of knowledge, creative expression and philosophy that expands and deepens our understanding of the human story. Today, Black History Month is observed in the United States and Canada during the month of February, while the European nations of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland celebrate Black History Month in October.