Stephen G. Hall: Black History Month: Setting the Story Straight

Whose idea was Black History Month? Who picked February to celebrate it? We welcome this brief but informative history of Black History Month from Stephen G. Hall, author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America, as he lays out the facts and debunks the myths of the celebration’s origins.–ellen

There are many misconceptions regarding the origins of Black History Month. Most of these misperceptions revolve around two issues. First, the erroneous belief that the observance was initiated outside of the African American community. Second, and an outgrowth of the first issue, that the celebration was deliberately planned for the shortest month of the year, February. Introducing a few simple facts into the conversation will go a long way in clarifying both the origins and timing of the observance. Contrary to popular belief, Black History Month was not initiated by majoritarian communities as a means of marginalizing African Americans or placed in February because it was the shortest month of the year. Not surprisingly, these perceptions continue to persist despite the existence of diverse resources about the origins of this celebration.

Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), established the observance as a means of informing all Americans of the many achievements of African Americans. Woodson believed the history and historical study of the past—what he termed “scientific history”—would help challenge persistent and pervasive stereotypes regarding African Americans’ capacity and capabilities. One of the most aggressive promoters of African American history as a legitimate scholarly specialty, Woodson also established the Journal of Negro History (JNH) in 1916, a scholarly journal focusing on the African American past. Later, in the 1930s, he inaugurated the Negro History Bulletin (NHB), which encouraged the study of black history in primary and secondary schools.

In conjunction with Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the ASNLH from 1936-1951, Woodson worked to promote the celebration at the local, state, and national levels. He is also credited with providing financial support and practical training for associate investigators who became the first generation of African American historians between 1915 and 1950. Scholars, many of whom would distinguish themselves in various areas of African and American history, such as Lorenzo Greene, James Hugo Johnston, Alrutheus Ambush Taylor, Rayford Logan, and Charles Wesley, benefited from their association with Woodson and the ASNLH. In this sense, Woodson, and these investigators, created what we know today as African American history.

Woodson’s sense of African American history, his involvement in its professionalization, and its importance to African Americans was also reflected in the choice of February as the month for the observance. February was a logical choice for Black History celebrations because it featured the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, widely viewed as the Great Emancipator, and Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African American in the nineteenth century. These men were viewed as influential historical figures in the African American experience up to 1926. Both men were also Republicans, and this party enjoyed African American political support for the latter third of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1980. Today, the ASNLH continues to thrive as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and it produces a Black History Kit to promote the annual celebration. This year’s theme is African Americans and the Civil War.

Stephen G. Hall is visiting assistant professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He is author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and you can follow him on Facebook here.