black history, woodson
Carter G. Woodson (Library of Congress)

The Man Behind Black History Month

2021 marks the 45th annual national celebration of Black History Month in the United States. As we celebrate this historic monthlong observance, it’s the ideal time to look back at how the celebration of Black History began — a legacy that dates back more than 100 years into our past.

Woodson in 1915. (Public domain image)

According to most historians, the first major recognition of the impact of Black Americans on our country’s history occurred in 1915 when author and journalist Carter G. Woodson traveled to Chicago to attend a celebration marking the anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation. At the event, Woodson set up and displayed an exhibit that highlighted key events in the timeline of Black history.

A pioneer in the study of Black history, Woodson was the son of former slaves who grew up working in coal mines and quarries in Virginia. Although he was an incredible scholar, going on to earn a four-year high school degree in just two years, a master’s from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard, Woodson overcame numerous challenges on his way to becoming an academic great, teaching himself for much of his early education.

Building upon the success of his exhibit the year before, in 1916 Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland worked to formalize the study of Black history even further, founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The organization was dedicated to the research and study of the history and achievements of Black Americans and other people of African descent. Re-named the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization still exists today. In addition to helping to eliminate the “dearth of information on the accomplishments of Blacks,” Woodson and his association also wanted to help establish an outlet for Black scholars to promote their work and study of others, so they also founded the Journal of Negro History (now, the Journal of African American History), a quarterly academic journal spotlighting African American life and history.

As the ASNLH grew and gained more and more members and supporters, the projects they took on increased in size as well. In 1926, the ASNLH sponsored the first Negro History Week during the second week in February. The choice to hold these celebrations in February was deliberate: the second week of February marks the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Throughout the decades that followed and as the civil rights movement grew and expanded, mayors in certain cities across the country would recognize the weeklong observance. Some colleges and universities also began recognizing the observance and extending the weeklong celebration to the entire month of February.

However, a federally recognized celebration of Black history did not become official until fifty years later; in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially declared February as Black History Month, proclaiming that it was time for all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Since its creation in 1976, the ASALH has also assigned a theme for every Black History Month. For 2021, the group focused on “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.”

According to the ASALH, “The Black family has been a topic of study in many disciplines — history, literature, the visual arts and film studies, sociology, anthropology and social policy. Its representation, identity and diversity have been reverenced, stereotyped and vilified from the days of slavery to our own time. The Black family knows no single location, since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations and continents.”

How to Celebrate Black History Month

Black History Month began as an acknowledgement of the all-too-often erased history of the many diverse populations living across Africa, as well as a way to recognize and celebrate Black Americans’ achievements and the innumerable contributions of those who came before us have made to American society. After 2020 brought to light the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others who were brutalized by law enforcement and neglected by systems steeped in racism, this year’s Black History Month is also a time to reflect on their legacy and to re-examine how to continuing moving forward in the fight for representation, inclusion and equality.

As you reflect on the month, look at the way Black history and American history are so closely intertwined. Educate yourself on the history of slavery and the reality of systemic racism, but also take the time to reflect on the triumphs, resilience and vibrant culture of Black people as well. Learn about Black innovators, scholars, artists and history-makers you may not have previously heard of. Learn about current civil rights leaders and movements you can get involved with. Continue engaging in anti-racist discussions and education.

Check back all month long for DiversityInc’s ongoing coverage on Black History Month.

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