Why is Black History Month in February, and is it still necessary?
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month during the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.
For over 100 years, Black History Month has been in some form a celebration of the African Americans who contributed to reshaping the U.S. and the world. So how did this tradition begin and is it still necessary today?
“In 1915, the context of that time was an era where African Americans’ civil rights had largely been eroded in the South and had limited access to public accommodations in Jim Crow schools,” said Dr. Fredrick Knight, associate professor of history at Morehouse College. In order to understand the origin of Black History Month, he says you have to understand the dynamics of the early 1900s.
As the turn of the 20th century gave an end to Reconstruction and the beginning of the Segregation era, historian Carter G. Woodson noticed that a narrative of Blacks continuing to be inferior to Whites started to take forth.
Inspired by the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, created the Study of Negro Life in History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) to change the conversation of Blacks being an asset to the country instead of a liability that was being written in books and newspapers at the time.
“This was 50 years after the end of the Civil War and the memory of the war was still fresh in Black people’s mind,” said Knight. “There were people who were descendants of slaves and people who were slaves were still alive.”
Woodson noticed that the narrative of the contributions Blacks had in shaping the country was not referenced accurately in the history books. It was then in 1916 that Woodson wrote the Journal of Negro History which started to move the pendulum of inclusion for Blacks in American society.
“Within that political and social environment, there was also a knowledge gap insofar as if you look at U.S. history textbooks in the ways United States history was taught in the first couple of decades of the 20th century and Black people were largely excluded from the textbooks,” said Knight.
In 1926 Woodson designated the second week of February as Negro History Week, which normally fell on the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass (Feb. 14). However, the celebration extended into the entire month when it was renamed Afro American History Month in 1972 and four years later, it has the name of Black History Month today.
“These changes in names are significant because they mark the kind of evolution of a Black consciousness that went from “Negros” to “Afro American” and to “Black,” said Regine Jackson, Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Agnes Scott College.
Through the years, society asked why February, the shortest month of the year, would be designated for Black History Month. In addition to Lincoln and Douglass’s birthdays, the second month of the year has additional historical significance that solidifies the time of celebration too.
“These two men whose influence on African American history was great at the time and the thing that has the most significance now has to do with the way February as this marker of a certain kind of reform in American history,” said Jackson.
Although February is the shortest month on the calendar, it’s rich with events important to Black Americans. W.E.B. DuBois and Rosa Parks were born in February. Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery Bus also occurred during that month, as did the first sit-in of a Whites-only diner in Greensboro, North Carolina. The 15th Amendment, giving Black men the right to vote, was ratified in February in addition to the assassination of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X.
“[The 15th Amendment] officially passed in 1870,” Jackson said, “but we know that it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1968 many years later that we’d see it come to reality and then here we are in 2022.”
“Woodson thought it was important for him as well as others to tell a different set of stories to change the narrative,” Knight added. “By virtue of changing the narrative about Black people, it could potentially change the future – both the present realities and also the future of Black people.”
Today Black History Month is not only celebrated in the U.S., other countries recognize those of African and Caribbean descent. The United Kingdom has celebrated Black History Month in October for over 30 years and recognizes Black people that have contributed to British history. Ireland and Canada also have celebrations.
“Pulling that thread thinking about Black History Month not just as a celebration of some key figures but of these movements and interests. It would be great to see that kind of development happening throughout the world,” said Jackson.
Black History Month has certainly had an impact on American culture, but is this celebration still necessary? Knight argues that it is.
“We think about what’s happening in the world of American politics today. The political theater that happening around critical race theory that is not being taught in elementary school,” said Knight, “but rather is a red herring that politicians are using in order to distract voters and fan up flames of fear among the populace. To acknowledge that America’s original sin, in addition to the dispossession of American Indians from their land, was slavery, and until we have a reckoning with that, the U.S. will not be made whole as a country.”
Jackson agrees that this is not the time to forget that Black history is a facet of American history and that slavery is not the only contribution to the country.
“When Woodson started Negro History Week, there was the assumption that Black people didn’t do anything worth celebrating; worth remembering; worth studying,” said Jackson. “It’s important to mark that acknowledgment when there was a moment before 1916. There was this sort of national attitude that nothing that Black people had done, really mattered.”
Continuing to learn about Black History Month does not stop after graduation. Everyone can continue to learn about the achievements of African Americans today.
“The first thing is to continue to study and continue to learn,” Knight said. “The most important thing that you can do is just continue to stay engaged and learn ongoing exposure to lectures, reading books and having conversations across the dinner table. Challenging one’s assumptions is essential.”