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A Retrospective Look Into the History Behind Black History Month

Whether through advertisements, news stories, or even newly–popularized Instagram infographics, the average American is often reminded of Black History Month all throughout February. Still, despite the individual connections we hold with this tradition and the frequency with which we see Black History Month programming or content, many of us are unaware of the foundations of this historic practice. 

The origins of Black History Month lie in 1915, when Carter G. Woodson, considered to be the father of Black History, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson and his colleague from the ASNLH, W. Marvin Dulaney, set out in 1926 to establish a coordinated time that promoted and celebrated Black culture, eventually designating the second week of February as “Negro History Week,” which functioned as the early makings of the Black History Month with which we are now familiar. It is widely agreed upon that this original time was chosen because it overlaps the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, the latter of which is the same date as the creation of the NAACP

This tradition grew and adapted over the following decades, eventually aligning with the climax of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and gaining more awareness and participation. Black students and teachers at Kent State University proposed the current month–long duration in February of 1969, and it was in 1976 during the country’s bicentennial that President Gerald R. Ford officially named February as Black History Month. Ford encouraged the nation to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Outside of the U.S., Black History Month is also celebrated in Canada throughout the month of February, and other countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK celebrate it in October. Originally, these places were focused on Black American history, but each country has gradually shifted to focus on their respective Black history and its impact on them individually.

Unbeknownst to many, there has also been a theme assigned to every Black History Month observance since 1976, with this year’s being “Black Health and Wellness.” It’s a particularly poignant notion given the context of the modern Black Lives Matter juxtaposed with the COVID–19 pandemic. Its ideas include the legacies of Black scholars in and around Western and traditional medicine as well as historic activities and rituals in which Black communities engage to promote wellness. Past themes include “The Crisis in Black Education,” “Biography Illuminates the Black Experience,” and “The Use of Spirituals in the Classroom.”

Presently, Black History Month functions as a two–way mirror, offering important insights into the progress made towards racial equity in this country while simultaneously reminding us of what’s left to be done. Check out other articles by contributors to Her Campus at UPenn that highlight initiatives, traditions, and Black figures for you to celebrate in February and all year long. Check out NPR and history.com for other insights into the month!

Kendall is a Freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying Communications and Economics.
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