How Did Black History Month Get Started?

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dreamBlack History month starts today.

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An alumnus of the University of Chicago with  many friends in the city, Carter G. Woodson traveled from  Washington, D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth  anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Thousands of African Americans traveled from across the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the  destruction of slavery.  Awarded a doctorate in Harvard three years  earlier, Woodson joined the other exhibitors with a black history display.

Despite being held at the Coliseum, the site of the 1912 Republican convention, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. Inspired by the three-week celebration, Woodson decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of black life and history before leaving town.  On September 9th, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA with A. L. Jackson and three others and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
In 1925, he decided that the Association had to shoulder the  responsibility.  Going forward it would both create and popularize knowledge about the black past..He sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February, 1926.

Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform.  It is commonly said that Woodson  selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in  shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th  and the 14th, respectively.  More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition.  Since Lincoln’s  assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the  fallen President’s birthday.  And since the late 1890s, black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’.  Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week. During the Civil Rights Movement in the South, the Freedom Schools incorporated black history into the curriculum to advance social change.  The Negro History movement was an intellectual insurgency that was part of every larger effort to transform race  relations.

The 1960s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of black history.  Before the decade was  over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month.

In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Association used its influence  to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to black history. Since the  mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing  the Association’s annual theme. What Carter G. Woodson would say about the continued celebrations is unknown, but he would smile  on all honest efforts to make black history a field of serious study and provide the public with  thoughtful celebrations.

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