February marks Black History Month, a federally recognized, nationwide celebration that calls on all Americans to reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have played in shaping US history. But how did this celebration come to be – and why does it happen in February?
The man behind the holiday
Carter G. Woodson, considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history, is given much of the credit for Black History Month.
The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. He received his education during the four-month term that was customary for black schools at the time.
At 19, having taught himself English fundamentals and arithmetic, Woodson entered high school, where he completed a four-year curriculum in two years. He graduated from Berea College in 1903 and went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. He later earned a doctorate from Harvard.
How the holiday came about
Disturbed that history textbooks largely ignored America’s black population, Woodson took on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation’s history.
To do this, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He also founded the group’s widely respected publication, the Journal of Negro History.
In 1926, Woodson developed Negro History Week. He believed “the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.”
In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month.
Why he picked February
Woodson chose the second week of February for his celebration because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population:
- Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader; though his birthdate isn’t known, he celebrated it on February 14.
- President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in America’s confederate states; he was born on February 12.
For his work, Woodson has been called the Father of Black History.
A version of this story was first published in 2007.