The History of Black History Month

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Black History Month is an annual observance and commemoration in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  Its original purpose was to recall and celebrate important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.

In the US, it is celebrated annually in  February; likewise in February for Canada. The United Kingdom’s Black History Month is October.

Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1926.  It was the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson and the Chicago-based Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  Woodson declared that the second week of February would forever be “Negro History Week.”  Why the second week?  Because this week contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

The principal point of Negro History Week was to facilitate and encourage a universal and coordinated teaching of the history of black Americans in this nation-state’s public schools.

The first Negro History Week was met with only a tepid response by education establishments nationwide.  Indeed, only the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia, as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., made even lukewarm efforts to incorporate the celebration into their curricula.

That meager reaction, however, did not deter Professor Woodson.  He, in fact, pronounced that first Negro History Week as a resounding success.  He called it “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association,” and he and the Association doubled-down on plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis.

Woodson believed that teaching black history, was at once separate from yet inextricably intertwined with, “white history”;  and that it was absolutely called for and essential for both the physical and intellectual survival of black people within this nation-state.    The Journal of Negro History quotes him thusly:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.

By 1929, as per the Journal, all but two State Departments of Education observed Negro History Week.  Its celebration in “every state with [a] considerable Negro population” had been made possible and a reality by means of the distribution of “official literature associated with the event.”

Also, by ’29, churches got into the act and began to play a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week.  Both the “mainstream” white press and the burgeoning black press were also inundated with Association literature touting the existing of this new celebration.

Among black people, Negro History Week was enthusiastically embraced from day one.  Black History clubs sprouted across the country like mushrooms after a good Spring rain.  There was overwhelming interest among black teachers, and progressive whites. Thus, Negro History Week grew exponentially throughout the following decades, as  mayors across the United States joined in and many actually endorsed it as a holiday.

It was the organization called Black United Students at  Kent State University in February 1969 which first proposed expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month.  Thus, the first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.

In 1976, as part of the US Bicentennial celebration, the heretofore informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the US government. Indeed, President Gerald R. Ford  exhorted all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Each and every February, Black History Month reignites debate about the continued usefulness and, yes, fairness of having a designated month dedicated to the history of one race.

Others are concerned that celebration of black history cheapens that history to only a single (and the shortest) month of recognition of the prodigious and ongoing contributions of blacks, and that such a celebration reduces the whole idea of black history to one of mere “hero worship.”

One high profile critic of Black History Month is the celebrated actor Morgan Freeman:  “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

Freeman both misses and makes my point at the same time:  He is absolutely right, of course.  Black history is American history.  That’s the point.

What Freeman does not acknowledge or recognize is that black history has never been acknowledged or recognized as an integral part of “American” history.   That is, it has never been told as an equal partner alongside white American history.  For example, unless one takes specific college courses in black history, one would never know that:

  • The very first person to die in the fight for independence from British colonialism was a black man. ( Crispus Attucks, 1770)
  • Benjamin  Bannecker, a black mathematician, astronomer, clockmaker, author and surveyor, first laid out the design for Washington, D.C.
  • Leonidas Berry (1902-1995) invented the gastroscope, which allows doctors to see inside one’s stomach and intestines.
  • September 2, 1862.  The date the first blacks were allowed to actually serve in the Civil War via the Black Brigade of Cincinnati.
  • Chicago was home to one of the largest prisoner of war camps for Confederate soldiers.

Space does not allow for more citations of black impact on this nation-state’s history.  Suffice it to say, though, that there are thousands upon thousands of entries that could be made here.

Do yourself a favor – look it up.

Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.