The seeds for Black History Month were planted in 1926 when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) established the second week of February as Black History Week. Historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered the idea and got a handful of education departments to recognize the week in their schools. Fast forward 95 years, and the week has evolved into a month-long tradition that is universally recognized across the country.
Many of Woodson’s aspirations for Black History Week still resonate today. ASALH, which Woodson founded, describes the original vision for the week as “a special time for us to collectively celebrate our racial pride as well as collectively assess white America’s commitment to its professed ideals of freedom.” For Woodson, Black History Week was just one of many tactics for shining light on and celebrating the Black experience. His academic work showed him the need for increased awareness of Black history in our education system and cultural sphere.
The underrepresentation of Black history in curriculum has been a long-lasting tension point. In the mid-1960s, there were several student protests at universities demanding courses and departments dedicated to Black Studies and African American history. One such protest was organized at Kent State in Ohio where students planned the first month-long Black History celebration. Many college students today are still demanding a curriculum that better reflects Black Americans’ role in shaping this nation. The education problem is also apparent in primary and secondary schooling, particularly in the South where some school systems refuse to teach AP US History because of its curriculum on slavery. Former President Trump’s executive order for a more “patriotic” education can be understood as an attempt to whitewash US history.
Black History Month was intended to be a safeguard against this type of erasure. In Woodson’s eyes, erasure had fatal consequences. “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.” Black history became officially etched in our national consciousness in 1976 when President Gerald Ford recognized the month and lauded the accomplishments of Woodson and Black Americans in general.
Our story and our efforts to share it with the world continue on. Woodson would smile with pride not only at national observance of Black History Month, but also in response to the many voices who have dedicated themselves to sharing our history each and every day no matter the month. From the 1619 project to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, more seeds of knowledge are being planted. If we continue to nourish these efforts with the attention they deserve, they will produce the fruits of equality and justice.