by Kenneth Rudich
Black History Month History
The predecessor to Black History Month in the USA was Negro History Week. Its establishment in February of 1926 came about through a joint announcement made by African-American historian, author and journalist Carter Godwin Woodson, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (which Woodson also helped to launch).
Woodson was one of the first scholars ever to specialize in this area of study, and it would earn him a reputation for being the “father of black history.”
He believed strongly in the essential need for doing this kind of work. “If a race has no history,” he wrote, “it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
Woodson selected the second week of February for celebrating Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. Needless to say, both men occupy a position of historical significance and symbolic importance to the black community, and Woodson must have known — or at least have guessed — that summoning the memory of their legacy during his newly appointed week of recognition would bode well for it.
In fact, this move in particular reveals a certain flair for coming up with a strategy that could serve equally well in both the short run and the long term, for gaining initial support while also paving the future. It was an impressive combination of insight and foresight joined together hand-in-hand, in 1926.
To his credit, the plan worked!
In 1976, as part of the United States Bicentennial, this observance was officially recognized by the U.S. government and adopted as Black History Month. President Gerald Ford commemorated the occasion by urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
As you can see, then, save for the fateful groundwork laid by Carter Godwin Woodson, there’s a chance — a very real possibility indeed — that the history of black history in the USA could have been lost or forgotten. Imagine the calamity of that consequence instead of the one that currently exists, thanks to this man’s dedication, diligence and pride.
A New Era for Black History Month
In recent years, the landscape for observing Black History Month has undergone a radical change.
New media, digital technology, overlapping news cycles, exploding population diversity, conflicting political agendas and economic disquietude are but a few of the factors responsible for introducing what amounts to a near total transformation of how (and why) news and information gets produced, presented, consumed and perceived. There’s been an inflection point, and it has created an enormously crowded and intensely competitive social climate, with a very different sort of rhythm and flow.
In Part 2, we’ll look at the impact of this change on Black History Month as it exists today.
Carter Godwin Woodson got the ball rolling; now it’s up to a new generation of Americans to keep it going.
Read Part 2!
P.S. – Be sure to take advantage of our offer for 21 Free Graphics for Black History Month. Use them on your Internet websites and social media platforms.