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Black History Month

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Picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mathew Ahmann during a civil rights march in 1963.

Civil Rights March on Washington D.C. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, in a crowd. (August 28, 1963)

(Picture courtesy the U.S. National Archives.)

Black History Month is a month set aside to learn, honor, and celebrate the achievements of black men and women throughout history. Since its inception, Black History Month has always been celebrated in February. Find out how Black History Month originated, why February was chosen, and what the annual theme for Black History Month is for this year.

Origins of Black History Month

The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to a man named Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950). Woodson, the son of former slaves, was an amazing man in his own right. Since his family was too poor to send him to school as a child, he taught himself the basics of a school education. At age 20, Woodson was finally able to attend high school, which he completed in just two years.

He then went on to earn a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Chicago. In 1912, Woodson became only the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University (W.E.B. Du Bois was the first). Woodson used his hard-earned education to teach. He taught both in public schools and at Howard University.

Three years after earning his doctorate, Woodson made a trip that had a great impact on him. In 1915, he traveled to Chicago to participate in a three-week celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of slavery. The excitement and enthusiasm generated by the events inspired Woodson to continue the study of black history year-round. Before leaving Chicago, Woodson and four others created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) on September 9, 1915. The following year, the ASNLH began publication of the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson realized that most textbooks at the time ignored the history and achievements of blacks. Thus, in addition to the journal, he wanted to find a way to encourage interest and study of black history. In 1926, Woodson promoted the idea of a "Negro History Week," which was to be held during the second week of February. The idea caught on quickly and Negro History Week was soon celebrated around the United States. With a high demand for study materials, the ASNLH began to produce pictures, posters, and lesson plans to help teachers bring Negro History Week into schools. In 1937, the ASNLH also began producing the Negro History Bulletin, which focused on an annual theme for Negro History Week.

In 1976, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Negro History Week and the bicentennial of the United States' independence, Black History Week was expanded to Black History Month. Ever since then, Black History Month has been celebrated in February around the country.

When Is Black History Month?

Woodson chose the second week of February to celebrate Negro History Week because that week included the birthdays of two important men: President Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). When Negro History Week turned into Black History Month in 1976, the celebrations during the second week of February expanded to the entire month of February.

What Is the Theme for This Year's Black History Month?

Since its inception in 1926, Negro History Week and Black History Month have been given annual themes. The first annual theme was simply, "The Negro in History," but since then the themes have grown more specific. Here is a list of the most current and future themes for Black History Month.

  • 2005 - The Niagara Movement: Black Protest Reborn, 1905-2005
  • 2006 - Celebrating Community: A Tribute to Black Fraternal, Social, and Civic Institutions
  • 2007 - From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas
  • 2008 - Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Multiculturalism
  • 2009 - The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas
  • 2010 - The History of Black Economic Empowerment
  • 2011 - African Americans and the Civil War
  • 2012 - Black Women in American Culture and History
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