The origin of Black History Month—and why it still matters

There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.

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SOURCEYES! Magazine

No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the Black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926.

Woodson was the second Black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the Black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use Black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to D.C. and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make Black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that schoolchildren would be exposed to Black history. Woodson chose the second week of February to celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance, where writers such as Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Claude McKay wrote about the joys and sorrows of Blackness. Meanwhile, musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of Black Southerners who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated Blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. He had two goals: One was to use history to prove to White America that Black people had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserved to be treated equally as citizens. By celebrating heroic Black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—Woodson essentially hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth, he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of Black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the Black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

The question that faces us today is whether or not Black History Month is still relevant. Is it still a vehicle for change? Or has it simply become one more school assignment that has limited meaning for children? Has Black History Month become a time when television and the media stack their Black material? Or is it a useful concept whose goals have been achieved? After all, few—except the most ardent rednecks— could deny the presence and importance of African Americans to American society. Or as my then-14-year-old daughter, Sarah, put it: “I see Colin Powell every day on TV. All my friends—Black and White—are immersed in Black culture through music and television. And America has changed dramatically since 1926. Is not it time to retire Black History Month, as we have eliminated ‘White’ and ‘colored’ signs on drinking fountains?” I will spare you the three-hour lesson I gave her.

I would like to suggest that despite the profound change in race relations that has occurred in our lives, Carter G. Woodson’s vision for Black history as a means of transformation and change is still quite relevant and quite useful. African American History Month, with a bit of tweaking, is still a beacon of change and hope that is still surely needed in this world. The chains of slavery are gone—but we are all not yet free. The great diversity within the Black community needs the glue of the African American past to remind us of not just how far we have traveled but lo, how far there is to go.

The power of inspiration

One thing has not changed: We still need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past. And through that inspiration, people will find tools and paths that will help them live their lives. Who could not help but be inspired by Martin Luther King’s oratory, commitment to racial justice, and his ultimate sacrifice? Or by the arguments of William and Ellen Craft, or Henry “Box” Brown, who used great guile to escape from slavery. Who could not draw substance from the creativity of Madam C.J. Walker or the audacity and courage of prize fighter Jack Johnson? Who could not continue to struggle after listening to the mother of Emmett Till share her story of sadness and perseverance?

I know that when life is tough, I take solace in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks. And I find comfort in the rhythms of Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, or Dinah Washington. And I draw inspiration from the anonymous slave who persevered so that the culture could continue.

Let me conclude by re-emphasizing that Black History Month continues to serve us well, in part because Woodson’s creation is as much about today as it is about the past. Experiencing Black History Month every year reminds us that history is not dead or distant from our lives.

Rather, I see the African American past in the way my daughter’s laugh reminds me of my grandmother. I experience the African American past when I think of my grandfather choosing to leave the South rather than continue to experience sharecropping and segregation, or when I remember sitting in the backyard listening to old men tell stories. Ultimately, African American History—and its celebration throughout February—is just as vibrant today as it was when Woodson created it 94 years ago. That’s because it helps us to remember there is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering.

This essay originally appeared in the “Our American Story” series published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It has been edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

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Lonnie G. Bunch III is the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian. As Secretary, he oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education units and centers. Previously, Bunch was the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. A widely published author, Bunch has written on topics ranging from the Black military experience, the American presidency, and all-Black towns in the American West, to diversity in museum management and the impact of funding and politics on American museums. His most recent book, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump, which chronicles the making of the museum that would become one of the most popular destinations in Washington. Learn more about Bunch’s life and work at The Smithsonian.

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