The Origins of Black History Month

February is the month we celebrate the rich, varied, and plentiful contributions African Americans have made to American culture.

Without empathy and knowledge of history how can we expand our ways of thinking? Answering this important question is, in part, the intention of many of our national months of observance, such as Women’s History Month (March) and Jewish American Heritage Month (May). They help provide a time when schools and universities, organizations, and businesses can emphasize our shared history and impart new information about select members of our community at large. The very idea of Black History month has its origins in a series of public discussions that have occurred since the beginning of the 20th century.

Why is there a need?

The answer is simple. We need to have an established foundation of empathy for marginalized groups within the U.S., because it will make us stronger, more cohesive, and much more resilient as a society. Specifically, in the case of Black History month, establishing and strengthening such a foundation may require a deeper understanding of the impacts of slavery and how we have all been affected by its legacy. These monthly observances have the potential to increase our awareness and understanding of current disparities in education, healthcare, and incomes that continue to affect marginalized groups. They also tend to bring us together through cultural celebrations, public talks and exhibitions, and many other forums. Black/African American history, which has more than one story, is our American history. We all are connected, and we influence each other through social engagements, music, art, culture, food, and education. The more we know about each other the stronger we can be together.

The origins of Black history month began with Carter Godwin Woodson, an African-American author and journalist who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Woodson pioneered the idea that a week in February be dedicated to the observance of Black/African-American History back in 1926. He strongly believed that through education and social and professional contact racism could be reduced. This sounds like the intended outcomes of many of our educational conferences that exist today. Dr. Woodson was the son of a former slave. He was the second African American to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate back in 1912 after the notable Dr. W.E.B Dubois. Dr. Woodson was the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He was also convinced that academic scholars of the day were intentionally ignoring the contributions of African Americans within history books as well in educational instruction. This motivated him to establish the first academic publication, The Journal of Negro History, back in 1916. This journal is still published under the title The Journal of African American History. As a journalist and educator Dr. Woodson recognized the need for research as a means of increasing the awareness of the importance of African American history.

Later on in our history, college students from Kent State University would take Black History week to another level. Their efforts began on campus back in 1969. They were the first in the U.S to expand the one-week observance to one full month.

The U.S. officially recognized Black History Month during President Gerald Ford’s bicentennial speech in 1976. President Ford also met with notable African American leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others and publicly acknowledged the value and importance of Dr. Woodson’s organization and its work, believing that we were all richer as a society because of the initiative. I encourage us all to take advantage of the numerous cultural, educational forums presented throughout the year. Their intentions are to increase public awareness in an inclusive manner. Taking a moment to openly discuss one group does not devalue another, as our learning never ends.

A frequent contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal, Pawling resident Obed Figueroa is a published researcher, columnist, and doctoral candidate at Northeastern University.