As I speak on Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, I'm frequently asked: “What is the history behind Black History Month?” The answer is fascinating and instructive.
The Father of Black History
With the following compelling words, African American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) explained his purpose for founding what in 1926 was known as Negro History Week.
“We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
A decade before he conceived of Negro History Week, Dr. Woodson launched the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915). He was motivated by the belief that publishing “scientific history about the Black race would produce facts that would prove that Africa and its people had played a crucial role in the development of civilization.” As a Harvard-trained historian, Woodson believed that truth would prevail over prejudice.
Based upon this conviction, Woodson established The Journal of Negro History in 1916. However, a decade into his work, he recognized that scholarship alone was not defeating the race problem. Unfortunately, many White historians were not promoting the truth even when they read its riches.
It Takes a Community
If the scholarly community would not be moved by truth, then how could the legacy of Black achievements ever become appreciated? Dr. Woodson began to urge Black civic organizations to promote the achievements that researchers were uncovering.
Woodson prodded his fraternity brothers at Omega Psi Phi to take up the work. In 1924 they responded with the creation of Negro History and Literature Week, which they later renamed Negro Achievement Week.
Within a year, Woodson knew that the Association had to expand its program. They refocused their goal to be: popularizing the truth of Black achievement. The Association had to reeducate Blacks as well as Whites, and its doors had to be opened to all, not just to historians and scholars.
When the Association announced Negro History Weekfor 1926, Woodson was overwhelmed by the response. Black history clubs sprang up, teachers desired materials to instruct their pupils, and many Whites, not simply White scholars, stepped forward to endorse the effort.
So Why February?
Dr. Woodson selected a week in February for the initial Negro History Week. Why?
The week in February included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln, of course, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Frederick Douglass had been one of the great African American leaders of the previous century.
By the time Woodson passed away in 1950, Negro History Week had become a central part of African American life. Progress was being made in bringing more Americans to appreciate the African American legacy and to embrace the celebration.
However, people recognized the need to devote more time to Black history. The nation was coming to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the America story. So, in 1976, fifty years after the initial celebration, the first Black History Month was celebrated. Since 1976, all American Presidents have issued Black History Month proclamations.
Now We Know the Rest of the Story
Here’s what we’ve learned about the history of Black History Month.
1. The Original Need: There existed in the 1920s an imbalance in historical study. Most history was written by “White men” about “dead White men.”
2. The Original Motivation: Dr. Woodson and other African American scholars recognized this imbalance. In response, they did not want to emphasize “Black history.” They simply wanted a factual, scholarly study of Blacks in history. In fact, they insisted that what we needed was not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national, racial, and religious prejudice.
3. Scholarly Disappointment: Being a Harvard-trained historian, Dr. Woodson assumed that the truth would set us free. He believed that when White historians saw the facts of history—that all people of all ethnicities have made sterling contributions to civilization—that their biases would die. He was wrong.
4. Spreading the Word: Seeing the failure of White historians to present the facts, Woodson and others now realized that it would take a community. The average citizen needed to be educated in the historical truth of the beautifully diverse nature of the history of civilization. Thus was birthed what we now know as Black History Month.
5. Historical Clarity: For those who might say, “Why should Blacks have their own month?” we need to answer historically. “Blacks needed their own month to begin to overcome the distortion not only of the other eleven months, but of the preceding 1,000s of years of recorded history.” Leaders like Dr. Woodson never insisted on the supremacy of any one race. They simply wanted to uncover the buried historical riches of any neglected cultures. (That’s the identical motivation that led to my writing Beyond the Suffering).