“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” Thurgood Marshall
February marks the celebration of African American History Month.
Americans have recognized African American History Month annually since 1926. It was pioneered by Dr. Carter Woodson and originally called “Negro History Week.” Born to parents of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at age 20. He graduated within two years and later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Woodson was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the accomplishments of African Americans and took on the challenge of writing them into the nation’s history. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915. A year later, he founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of African Americans throughout American History.
Woodson chose the second week of February for the celebration since it marked the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the African American population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
By the time of Woodson’s death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a central part of African American life and substantial progress had been made in bringing more Americans to appreciate the celebration. At mid-century, mayors of cities nationwide issued proclamations noting Negro History Week.
Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from January 2 to February 28, 1970. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often ignored accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month and endorsed a specific theme. The theme for Black History Month 2021 is The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.
By 2020, Black History Month had become a focus beyond schools. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “a time when the culture and contributions of African Americans take center stage” in a variety of cultural institutions including theaters, libraries and museums. It has also garnered attention from the U.S. business community. In February 2020, Forbes noted that “much of corporate America is commemorating” Black History Month, including The Coca-Cola Company, Google, Target Corporation, Macy’s, United Parcel Service and Under Armour.
Other countries around the world, including Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.