The language used in the past to describe events and peoples does not always reflect language that is considered acceptable today. The following history of Black History Month contains such language and does so to remain historically accurate.
Since 1976, every United States president has officially declared February Black History Month. However, the idea to celebrate African Americans and their contributions to the United States started much earlier. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard trained Historian, traveled from Chicago, Illinois to Washington, D.C. to take part in the national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of African American slaves. At the celebration, Woodson observed the thousands of people who had traveled to see exhibits highlighting the progress of African Americans since the end of the Civil War. The celebration lasted three weeks, and inspired by the immense turnout, Woodson decided to form an organization that would promote the scientific study of black life and history. On September 9, 1915, before leaving Washington, D.C., Woodson met with four others and formed the Association of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
In 1916, Woodson founded The Journal of Negro History and hoped that others would join him in spreading the word about the findings he and other prominent African Americans were publishing in the journal. Part of his mission to spread the message of Black achievement included asking his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers to help him. They responded by creating Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement week. While the work Omega Psi Phi was significant, Woodson desired a greater impact and thought that the ASNLH should take an more active role. In fulfillment of this desire, Woodson sent out a press release in February of 1926 announcing Negro History Week.
Woodson chose February specifically since it was already tied to celebrations focusing on Frederick Douglass's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays. Woodson knew that by choosing a month in which the African American community were already celebrating he would have greater success. Woodson was also interested in moving the celebrations away from what he called "great men" to the entire community. Instead of focusing on a couple of people Woodson wanted to focus on the Black community as a whole and the contributions that countess African American men and women had made to the United States.
The 1920s was known at the time as the decade of the New Negro, due to the raising racial pride and consciousness that was developed by the post-WWI generation. As urbanization and industrialization increased, African Americans began to move from rural areas in the south into the bigger, expanding cities of the north. This migration, combined with urbanization and industrialization, helped to expand the Black middle class. This increasing Black middle class became consumers of Black culture and literature and created Black history clubs. It was in this cultural flourishing that Woodson and the ASNHL received an overwhelming response to their call to celebrate African Americans.
Teachers and Black history clubs created a demand for instruction materials and Woodson responded by setting a theme each year for the national celebration and provided study materials, lesson plans, plays, and posters highlighting important peoples and events. Many high schools created Negro History Clubs and the ASNLH branches were formed Across the United States. As Black populations grew, mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations.
In the 1940s, the Black community began to slowly expand the study of Black history and Black history celebrations to the public. African Americans wanted to include African American history as part of school curriculum and not just as a supplement to United States history. The 1940s also saw some communities celebrating the full month of February, not just a week. By the 1960s, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month.
Scott, Daryl Michael. "Origins of Black History Month." Association for the Study of African American Life and History, accessed November 11, 2019. https://asalh.org/about-us/origins-of-black-history-month/.
"Black History Month." History.com. A&E Television Networks, August 21, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month.
Photograph: Women registering to vote in Las Vegas, Nevada, 1966 from the Clinton Wright Photograph Collection. PH-00379. Special Collections and Archives, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 2020, the theme of Black History Month will be African Americans and the vote. Regarding the 2020 theme, the Association for the Study of African American Life and Heritage (ASALH) writes that, "The year 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement. The year 2020 also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the right of black men to the ballot after the Civil War. The theme speaks, therefore, to the ongoing struggle on the part of both black men and black women for the right to vote. This theme has a rich and long history, which begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, i.e., in the era of the Early Republic, with the states’ passage of laws that democratized the vote for white men while disfranchising free black men. Thus, even before the Civil War, black men petitioned their legislatures and the US Congress, seeking to be recognized as voters. Tensions between abolitionists and women’s suffragists first surfaced in the aftermath of the Civil War, while black disfranchisement laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries undermined the guarantees in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for the great majority of southern blacks until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The important contribution of black suffragists occurred not only within the larger women’s movement, but within the larger black voting rights movement. Through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1960s, African Americans made their voices heard as to the importance of the vote. Indeed the fight for black voting rights continues in the courts today. The theme of the vote should also include the rise of black elected and appointed officials at the local and national levels, campaigns for equal rights legislation, as well as the role of blacks in traditional and alternative political parties."
Click here to explore past themes from ASALH.
"Black History Themes." Association for the Study of African American Life and History, accessed November 22, 2019. https://asalh.org/black-history-themes/.
UNLV has a variety of resources for African-American students. Click on the links below to explore more.