Carter G. Woodson and the origin of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926, which later evolved into Black History Month. (Courtesy of NSU Newsroom)Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926, which later evolved into Black History Month. (Courtesy of NSU Newsroom)

Whitney Ervin, Correspondent 

Black History Month has been a part of American culture for years. It is a time for us all to celebrate the achievements and impact of the contribution of Black people on our culture.

It is a time to reflect on history and to turn with hopeful eyes to the future. This month has a very significant meaning not just to African Americans, but to everyone. None of it would have been possible without Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va. to former slaves. He was the fourth of nine children. At the age of 20, he saved enough money from working at the coal mines to pay for his formal education. 

He was able to receive his high school diploma from Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, Va. in just two years due to already being self-taught in reading, writing and basic math. 

He would go on to become the second African American (following W. E. B. Du Bois) to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard University. Early on, Woodson took notice of the lack of African American history recognized in schools. He would dedicate his life to rectify this problem.

The seeds of Black History Month were planted in 1915 when Woodson attended a three week long celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of slaves. 

The event was held at The Coliseum in Chicago and was constantly overflowing with people waiting to see exhibits about African American history. Woodson was inspired by the event to form an organization supporting the study of African American history. 

This inspiration would lead to the formation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The ASNLH created many publication outlets for African American scholars of the time with establishments like Journal of Negro History (formed in 1916) and the Negro History Bulletin (formed in 1937.)

In 1926, he launched the annual Negro History Week. The observance of the week took place in February, which he chose because it encompassed Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays. 

In response to the first celebration, many African American history clubs began to be formed and some teachers began demanding teaching materials to instruct their students. When Woodson passed away in 1950, Negro History Week had become a significant part of African American life and had made substantial progress in becoming a widely acknowledged celebration. 

This continued throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In 1976, fifty years after the first Negro History Week, former President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

That same year, the association (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History continues to endorse Black History Month. They still run multiple African American publications and hold events throughout the year. A picture of a young, fresh faced Dr. Carter G. Woodson adorns the top of their website.

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