It's time to celebrate Black History Month again! A few days ago, I spent a bit of time refreshing myself on the origins of this celebration so I could ensure my boys understand. For simplicity's sake, we're going use the 5 Ws and the H.
Who - Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875 to formerly enslaved parents. They owned a six-acre farm that Woodson spent much of his time working on, causing him to have intermittent early education. Nevertheless, he was very intelligent and a great student. Because he believed education to be the equalizer, he insisted on receiving formal education and eventually became Harvard educated in 1912.
What - Fast forward several years to 1915 when Woodson traveled to Chicago, IL to a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation. Thousands of Black people traveled from all over the country to view the exhibitions. Before leaving town, Woodson met with a few other scholars determined to set up The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to the scientific study of Black life and history. He wanted scholars to fill The Journey of Negro History formed in 1916 with and for his fraternity brothers to continue the work. Heeding the call, the members of Omega Psi Phi formed the Negro History and Literature week in 1924, later renamed as Negro Achievement Week. Woodson wanted more and insisted on establishing Negro History Week in 1926.
When - Many people wonder why Black History Month is celebrated in February. Woodson chose February because it is the birth month of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two men instrumental in the Black history in the United States and celebrations of the men were already occurring. Though Woodson respected these men, he didn't believe in celebrating just one or two men when countless people fought and died for freedom. He wanted to transform the tradition of celebration two great men into a celebration of a great race of people.
Why - Interestingly, Woodson never intended for Black history to be studied just for one week out of the year. He actually intended that Negro History Week would be a culmination of what students had been learning all year. Woodson believed that Black history is American history and should be part of the regular curriculum in schools. In a speech given to Hampton Institute students he said, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.”
How - Once the idea of Negro History Week took hold, the ASLNH experienced great demand for study materials from schools and the public and the Great Migration occurred and the Black middle class expanded. The organization met the demand by creating an annual theme and provided pictures, lessons, posters and other materials for schools, Negro History Clubs and other organizations. He had to contend with the commercialization of the celebration and fought to put on worthy events. Woodson encouraged people to shy away from people with little knowledge trying to capitalize on the unsuspecting. Between the 1940s and 1960s, month-long celebrations began. The 1960s ushered in a new wave of cultural awareness and celebration of African roots. In this period, Negro History Week became Black History Month and cultural activists encouraged the ASNLH to move from a week-long to a month-long celebration. Since 1976, 50 years after the initial celebration, ASNLH Black History Month has been the focus and every major US president has recognized the association's annual theme.
For more information about the origins of Black History Month, check out the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History's website.
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To introduce younger children to Carter G. Woodson, check Carter Reads the Newspaper.