The history of Black History Month dates back more than 100 years. You may have heard that it was founded by Carter G. Woodson, but the story of Negro History month and its celebration in February dates back even further to Frederick Douglas.
Frederick Douglas, a former slave who escaped the south and became one of the country’s leading Black abolitionist, collapsed and died on Feb. 20 1895 after speaking at a women’s suffragist convention. Douglas, who never knew his real birth day or year, chose Feb. 14 as his birthday. So, it wasn’t surprising when in 1897, when Mary Church Terrell, an educator and community activist, proposed the month of February, and the 14th of that month as Douglas Day, to celebrate the abolitionist accomplishments.
Douglas Day grew in popularity with more and more students at Black schools celebrating the day.
In 1915, 50 years after the emancipation of slaves, Carter G. Woodson, helped cofound the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. Woodson, an academician, was the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard after W.E.B. DuBois. In 1916, the association established The Journal of Negro History, the first scholarly journal that published researchers’ findings on the historical achievements of Black individuals.
“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” stated Woodson.
Woodson, a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, asked his brothers to join him in spreading the importance of Black history, and in 1924, the Omegas celebrated Negro History and Literature Week. In 1926, Woodson announced the first Negro History Week. He chose February because it was the month both Lincoln and Douglass were born.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his birthday, on Feb. 12, had been celebrated by Black Americans and Republicans. With Douglass Day, Feb. 14, growing in popularity, Woodson saw the celebration of Negro History Week in February as a way to honor these two men as well as encourage Americans to study the history of Black people in America.
From Week to Month, From Negro to Black
As early as 1940, there are mentions of the celebration growing from a week to a month with citizens in West Virginia celebrating Negro History Month. In the 1960s, students on college campuses began pushing for the opportunity to study Black history and in February 1969 Black History Month was celebrated on the campus of Kent State University.
In 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, Pres. Gerald Ford issued a statement on the importance of Black History Month to all Americans.
“The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life,” he said. “In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideal envisioned by our founding fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Every president since Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s, has issued a Black History Month proclamation.