The history of the month-long celebration goes back more than 100 years

By Andrea Wurzburger
Updated February 01, 2021 11:10 AM
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Black History Month is an entire month devoted to putting a spotlight on African Americans who have made contributions to our country. Originally, it was seen as a way of teaching students and young people about the contributions of Black and African Americans in school, as they had (and still have) been often forgotten or left out of the narrative of the growth of America. Now, it is seen as a celebration of those who've impacted not just the country, but the world with their activism and achievements.

Here's what you should know about the tradition that started more than a century ago.

Who came up with Black History Month?

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In 1915, Harvard historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded what is today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in order to bring awareness to the African American people who had made contributions to society, but had been forgotten or left out of the narrative.

In 1926, the men were looking for a way to make those previously unsung contributions of African Americans known to the public. And so began Negro History Week. Before Black History month was an entire month long, it was only celebrated for one week in February. It wasn't until the 1960s that colleges and universities began to expand the recognition of African American history to the full month of February.

It was made a national holiday in 1976, when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, and it became the month-long celebration that we know today.

Now, the holiday has evolved, with organizations like Black Lives Matter looking towards the future of Black Americans and celebrating Black Future Month in conjunction with Black History Month.

Who fought for Black History Month?

The fight for Black History month was not so much a fight as it was a movement. Led by Woodson, the son of former slaves and second American American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, the movement began as one week and quickly spread throughout university and schools until it became an entire month. Woodson established the Journal of Negro History in 1916 and the Negro History Bulletin in 1937 as a means of giving Black scholars a place to publish their research and findings.

Why is Black History Month celebrated in February?

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The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of two men in particular, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and Douglass, whose true date of birth is unknown, celebrated his birthday on February 14. Both men were widely celebrated by the black communities at the start of Negro History Week in 1926. According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, "Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the black past. He was asking the public to extend their study of black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success."

What is the theme of Black History Month 2021?

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Every year, a theme is chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and this year the theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity and will explore the African diaspora. "The family offers a rich tapestry of images for exploring the African American past and present," the ASALH writes on their website.

Do other countries celebrate Black History Month?

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Though the practice of celebrating Black History Month originated in America, other countries have since started celebrating. In Canada, they celebrate in the month of February as well, while in countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Ireland, they celebrate in October.