What is Black History Month?

Origins of Black History Month

Black History Month is the tribute of recognizing the past achievements and ongoing contributions African Americans have accomplished nationally and globally. Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson was the original founder of this cultural celebration. Born from parents who were ex-slaves and who could not read or write, he was determined to attend school and to earn a college degree. The turning point in his life was when none of the courses he took included the history of Black Americans. 

In his search for the true history of people of African descent, while attending Harvard University, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History on February 19, 1926. He established "Negro History Week" as a way to share knowledge about Black people around the world. His work with white scholars helped to neutralize the racial stereotypes and the ignorance of the history of African Americans. Today, Negro History Week has expanded to the entire month of February. Similar Black Heritage celebrat ions have begun throughout the African Diaspora (Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas). This has created greater emphasis on the history and culture of the Black community.

The Legacy of Slavery

African Americans, as slaves and freedmen, fought back to end those unforgiving words that were oppressive during slavery and after the Emancipation Proclamation.

  • They told the world that they wanted equality, citizenship and humanity. They did not want to continue to work as cattle for their slave masters.
  • They told the world they also felt pain and sorrow. They cried when their families were separated apart to be sold. They cried when slave masters used whipping and torture devices to deprive them their own humanity.
  • They told the world that they could also read, write and reason. They were not the senseless and incompetent coon/Sambo shown by popular media. African Americans became doctors, lawyers, educators, social workers and more. Slave masters feared intelligent slaves who were not content with their lots.
  • They told the world that they do not have to obey or depend on a master. Slaves and freedmen established many forms of resistance that involved making quilts, administering poison, running away, starting slave rebellions, writing slave narratives and delivering anti-slavery speeches.

The Future of Black History Month

Morgan Freeman recently stated in the media that having a month dedicated to African American History is 'ridiculous.' He stated, 'I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history.' (Source: Freeman Criticizes Black History Month) African American history should be inclusive across the curriculum in all subject areas. In 2002, New Jersey became the first state to incorporate African-American history into the K-12 public school curriculum (Read the successful passage of the Amistad Act in New Jersey here). Educators should expand their curriculum to include famous individuals and events that make up the total African American experience. In sum, "Black history is American history." 

Black History Month came into existence because Dr. Carter G. Woodson saw this celebration as a vision of cultural empowerment and expression. The education of the people on the many struggles and movements of African Americans has to be inclusive in American history. Today, the emergence of African American Studies in colleges and universities across the nation recognize the progress and legitimacy of studying the African American experience despite widespread skepticism against this field of study. College students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds can take courses in African American Studies to enhance their understanding of African American history and culture. The history of African Americans will continue to motivate students to greater opportunities.

[Revised April 25, 2009]