In 1925 Carter G. Woodson announced that Negro History Week, a celebration of African Americans’ contributions to US history, would be held the following year. He chose the week in February when both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born. Woodson said, “If a race has no history, 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 was born in 1875 in Virginia to parents who were former slaves. Growing up in a large, poor family, Woodson could not attend school on a regular basis. He was mostly self-taught. He even continued his studies while he worked as a coal miner.
At the age of 20, he entered Douglass High School, graduating in only two years. He went on to attend college and continued his schooling for many years. In 1912 Woodson received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.
The popularity of Negro History Week grew over the years. By the 1960s the civil rights movement had gained momentum as more and more African Americans realized the importance of their history to the United States. The week expanded to a month-long celebration on many college campuses.
In 1976, the country’s bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford officially designated the month of February to be Black History Month. He called on all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
We continue to commemorate the vast contributions of African Americans to our history and culture each February. Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands also celebrate Black History Month each year.
A number of high profile African Americans, such as Morgan Freeman and Stacey Dash, are critical of Black History Month. Some feel there should no longer be a need for it, that Black history should by now have been integrated into the consciousness of American society. Others are concerned that it may subliminally imply that the contributions of blacks need only be considered one month out of the year.
In any case, for now, each February, we continue to honor, memorialize and praise the contributions of African American politicians, mathematicians, historians, physicists, teachers, musicians, and all that lead the way forward.