Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” is given much credit for the creation of Black History Month, a federally recognized celebration during the month of February of the impact African Americans have had and the contributions they have made in the United States. It is also a time to reflect on the continued efforts African Americans make to fight for racial justice and equality among people of color.
Throughout his life, Woodson, who was born in 1875, dedicated his work to educating African Americans on their heritage.
The son of former slaves, Woodson spent most of his childhood working in coal mines in Huntington, West Virginia. After teaching himself English and arithmetic, he graduated from Berea College in 1903 and went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago.
He later earned a doctorate in history from Harvard, making him the second Black American to graduate with a PhD from the university, and the only person of enslaved parents to earn a PhD in history from any institution in the United States, according to the National Park Service.
Troubled by the lack of information about the accomplishments of African Americans, Woodson in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, to write Black Americans into the nation’s history.
Woodson believed it was imperative for young African Americans to understand their history and be proud of their culture.
“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,” Woodson wrote in “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.
In 1926, Woodson helped create the first Negro History Week, which was held during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who himself escaped from slavery, and former President Abraham Lincoln. Though his true date of birth isn’t known, Douglass celebrated his birthday on February 14, while Lincoln was born February 12.
The week influenced communities nationwide to organize performances and lectures focused on Black history, and establish history clubs in schools. Decades later, city mayors began to issue yearly proclamations to recognize Negro History Week, according to The Association for the Study of African American Life and History. By the late 1960s, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month on college campuses. But it wasn’t until 1976 that then-President Gerald Ford formally recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial.
“In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers,” Ford said in a February 10 speech. “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.”
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History dedicates its time to promoting, preserving and disseminating information about Black history, culture and life, according to its stated mission. It also selects a theme for Black History Month each year that reflects how people of African descent in the United States have viewed themselves, the influence of social movements on racial ideologies, and the aspirations of the Black community.
This year’s theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.