Written by Todd DePastino
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to celebrate February as Black History Month in order “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The President’s recognition of the month-long holiday was the culmination of a 50-year effort to promote a forgotten past and to integrate the study of American history.
The founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson, isn’t a household name, but every American historian knows about this giant of their profession.
Woodson’s illiterate parents had been enslaved, and young Carter mined coal in West Virginia as a teenager, all the while teaching himself to read, write, and learn a broad range of arts and sciences. He became the second Black American to receive a PhD from Harvard University (the first being W.E.B. DuBois) and served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.
Woodson was a professional historian, but segregation laws prevented him from attending American Historical Association conferences. He thought the teaching and writing of history should include the experiences of African Americans, whom, he said, had been “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.”
Shut out of mainstream white professional circles, Woodson launched his own Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, then started the Journal of Negro History, which is still being published.
In 1926, he urged schools to set aside the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” Woodson selected this time because of the long tradition in the Black community of celebrating two key February birthdays. The first was Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12. The second was that of Abolitionist, Civil Rights leader, and US statesman Frederick Douglass.
Born and raised in slavery, Douglass had no idea when he was born. He barely knew his mother and never knew his father’s identity. He chose Valentine’s Day on February 14 as the date of his birth, and the holiday became a hallowed date on the calendar in Black households following Douglass’s death in 1895.
Woodson promoted Negro History Week tirelessly over the next two decades. Even white schools began to take up the subject. In Woodson’s own West Virginia, teachers in the state converted the holiday to “Negro History Month” in the 1940s. Few knew that this often low key study of Black history would inspire a new generation of Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of these young activists at Kent State University in 1969 decided to update and expand “Negro History Week” to Black History Month. And it was there, on campus, that the first Black History Month was commemorated in February 1970.
Today, most historians honor Carter G. Woodson’s hope that Black history will be understood and appreciated as an indispensable part of American history, a heritage we all share.
Image at top is a poster honoring Gilda Jackson, the first African American woman to reach the rank of Colonel. She then became the first female to command Naval Aviation Depot, Cherry point. (U.S. Marine Corps graphic by Lance Cpl Symira Bostic)