What Is Black History Month? Learn How It Started and How You Can Celebrate This Year
This February, take time to learn about the history of the annual observance and how you can get involved.
Black History Month recognizes the contributions and achievements of African Americans throughout U.S. history. It is celebrated in the United States and other countries including Canada and the United Kingdom. And while many of us may recall learning facts about Black History Month in school, we don't know the history of Black History Month. Ironic, right? Read on to learn how a week-long celebration evolved into the national holiday it is today.
How It Started
Black History Month has roots dating back to 1915. According to an article published by Daryl Michael Scott, Professor of History at Howard University, Carter G. Woodson, the second Black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, attended a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation in Chicago.
Inspired by the thousands of African Americans who traveled from across the country to view exhibits that commemorated the progress their people had made, Woodson and other prominent African American figures decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. On September 9, 1915, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History or ASALH) was born.
But Woodson wanted to do more. After establishing The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and creating Negro Achievement Week in 1924 (originally called Negro History and Literature Week), Woodson continued to raise awareness of African American's contributions. So, ten years after ASALH began, Woodson announced the start of Negro History Week, stating it would be celebrated the following year during the second week of February.
But, Why February?
It's said that Woodson chose February because it is the birth month of two prominent men who greatly shaped black history—Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. To Woodson, the goal of Negro History Week was to "use history to prove to white America that Blacks had played important roles in the creation of America," according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
And by doing so, he hoped equality would follow. Being the scholar that he was, he wanted others to learn more about Black life and history, especially at a time when few felt compelled to take notice of the accomplishments made by African Americans.
How It Transformed Over the Years
Since the beginning of Negro History Week, Woodson envisioned a time where an annual celebration wouldn't be necessary for citizens to learn about African American history. And in the 1940s, Woodson began to get his wish.
Schools began to expand the study of Black history, including it in U.S. history. In the South, Freedom Schools incorporated Black history into the curriculum to advance social change and by the late 1960s, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses.
Woodson believed that celebrating Negro History Week would be a catalyst for racial transformation. And over the years it has been. So much so that in 1975, President Gerald Ford urged all Americans to "recognize the important contribution made to our nation's life and culture by Black citizens," according to the Library of Congress.
The following February in 1976, President Ford officially designated February as Black History Month, also known as African American History Month. President Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month that year. Since then, every U.S. president has officially designated February as Black History Month.
How You Can Celebrate and Get Involved
Like President Ford stated, Black History Month is the perfect time to recognize the contributions made by the Black community. And that starts with educating yourself about those contributions.
And because the celebration will be socially distanced this year, a great way to learn from home is by watching a movie, series, or documentary that details the struggles and successes of African Americans. Here are some of our top picks.
This documentary explores the ways in which life has and has not changed since the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery) was adopted in 1865. Director Ava DuVernay highlights the ways in which race is linked to mass incarceration in the United States and explores the relationship between police and the Black community. It’s available to stream on Netflix now.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House. Through a collection of letters and notes written by Baldwin, along with thoughts from activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., the film details black history in America. Watch it for free with Amazon Video, or stream it on Netflix.
This powerful series is based on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a Black woman who escaped poverty to become America’s first female self-made millionaire. Starring Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, and Carmen Ejogo, this four-part series is both inspiring and moving. Stream it on Netflix now.
Told in a four-part limited series, When They See Us tells the story of the Central Park Five, a group of five black teens who were wrongly accused of an assault in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This powerful series was nominated for 11 Emmy awards and won the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Limited Series. It’s available to stream on Netflix now.
This historical drama details the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. In a series of three protest marches, activists walked the 54-mile stretch of highway between Selma, Alabama, to the capitol building in Montgomery to advocate for Black Americans’ right to vote. The marches contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. This moving drama is available to rent on Amazon Video for $4.
There are plenty of books you can read, too. In addition to those listed below, we've rounded up our favorite books by Black female authors. These books can all be ordered on Amazon and shipped directly to your home.
In this moving novel, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson writes about the migration of Black Americans who left the South in pursuit of a better life. She interviewed more than a thousand people to detail this journey taken by thousands of people between 1915 to 1970, and tells in-depth stories of three unique individuals to give readers a comprehensive look at what life was like for them.
In this satirical but powerful novel, Emmy-nominated Baratunde Thurston (producer for The Daily Show and director of The Onion) details his experiences of being black in America. The New York Times bestseller features a collection of witty essays like “How to Be the Black Friend,” “How to Speak for All Black People,” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.”
In this award-winning work, Claudia Rankine uses essays, imagery, and poetry to capture the ongoing racial strife in modern day media. She perfectly captures the way Black Americans are treated in daily life, and the ways in which they are portrayed in the media. This collection won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award, among other awards.
This powerful novel tells the story of a nameless black man who grew up in the South and was expelled from a Negro college for openly discussing the black experience. The narrator goes on to become the spokesman of a mixed-race group of activists called The Brotherhood, but finds that unity is not easily achieved. Originally published in 1952, Invisible Man spent sixteen weeks at the top of the bestseller list and won the National Book Award for fiction.
And beyond February, there are plenty of ways to stay involved. Because of the pandemic, many Black-owned businesses have suffered. A simple way you can celebrate Black History Month is by supporting a local Black-owned business whether it be a restaurant, boutique, or bookstore.
And lastly, when it's safe to do so, visit a Black history or civil rights museum. But if you can't wait until then, some museums, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, offer online collections and virtual exhibits you can take advantage of.