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The history behind Black History Month

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in 1965.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in 1965.
Getty Images

Every February, schools, businesses, and governments across the country pay homage to black Americans like Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to mark Black History Month. While some of the biggest names in African-American history are touted during this month, the reason we even celebrate it today goes back to the idea of trumpeting those whose achievements had gone unsung.

And back then, Black History Month was just a week.

Carter G. Woodson sowed the seeds of Black History Month.
Carter G. Woodson sowed the seeds of Black History Month.
Wikimedia Commons

Historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse Moorland founded what is now the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History in 1915 after attending an event in Chicago honoring African-American progress in the 50 years since the end of slavery.

In what's now called The Journal of African American History, they published articles about African-American makers and shakers whose achievements had, for too long, gone unnoticed.

Eventually, Woodson tried to promote these findings more publicly. He reached out to other members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, who created Negro Achievement Week in 1924.

But seeking greater impact, he pushed for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History to sponsor a national Negro History Week in February 1926.

He chose the second week of the month because it coincided with the birthdays of two of the key figures for emancipation: abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14) and President Abraham Lincoln (February 12).

Eventually Woodson’s idea gained traction, and schools, historical clubs, lectures, and city governments would incorporate the week into their activities.

In 1976 — two and half decades after Woodson died — when there was a reinvigorated focus on African-American history through black pride campaigns as the civil rights movement came to a close, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized the entire month of February as Black History Month.

Eventually the idea to celebrate the contributions of people of African descent expanded well beyond the US. In 1987, the UK established its own Black History Month each October to honor the contributions of African people to the country thanks to Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo’s work with the Greater London Council.

In 1995, African-Canadian parliament member Jean Augustine motioned for Black History Month in Canada to bring awareness to the work of black Canadians. They also celebrate Black History Month in February.

From Black History Month to #BlackFutureMonth

One hundred years after the founding of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, black millennials are reframing Woodson’s idea from highlighting black history to highlighting black futures.

Leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization announced a #BlackFutureMonth campaign.

While Black History Month is concerned with making sure black people remain a part of our collective historical memory, Black Future Month focuses on black people’s dreams, breaking open how black people are envisioned in the futures we are creating.

The Black Lives Matter organization envisions Black Futures through reproductive justice.

The Black Lives Matter organization is dedicating each day of the month to a specific theme. For example, Tuesday's focus was on climate justice, while Wednesday's theme was reproductive justice.

Other national media publications and organizations are creating similar Black Future Month programming.

The overall point: to reimagine the possibilities of how black people around the world live their lives beyond the constraints of the contemporary moment.

With Woodson, that meant remembering the past. For black millennials, it means reimagining what possibilities lie ahead.