Written by Scott Neuman
February marks Black History Month, a tradition that got its start in the Jim Crow era and was officially recognized in 1976 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations. It aims to honor the contributions that African Americans have made and to recognize their sacrifices.
Here are three things to know about Black History Month:
It was Negro History Week before it was Black History Month
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, the scholar often referred to as the “father of Black history,” established Negro History Week to focus attention on Black contributions to civilization. According to the NAACP, Woodson — at the time only the second Black American after W.E.B. Du Bois to earn a doctorate from Harvard University — “fervently believed that Black people should be proud of their heritage and [that] all Americans should understand the largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans.”
Woodson, the son of former enslaved people, famously said: “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Woodson chose a week in February because of Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was Feb. 12, and Frederick Douglass, who was born enslaved and did not know his actual birth date, but chose to celebrate it on Feb. 14.
“Those two people were central to helping to afford Black people the experience of freedom that they have now,” says W. Marvin Dulaney, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which Woodson founded in 1915 and today is the official promoter of Black History Month.
In the decades after the Civil War and through the racial violence that erupted across the country in the years following World War I, there was a concerted effort to repress the teaching of Black history.
“In the South, they tried to suppress Black history or African American history in the public schools,” Dulaney says, “particularly about things like Reconstruction and slavery, literally distorting the curriculum.”
At the university level, Black studies programs were almost nonexistent, he says. “California was the first state to actually mandate Black history in 1951 for the public schools.”
Largely as a result of the civil rights and Black consciousness movements of the 1960s, “you saw an uptick in Black history courses,” says LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University at Buffalo.