Every year on January 31, the standing U.S. president issues an official proclamation calling all of us Americans to gather together during the month of February to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to our nation’s heritage and history. But if you’re like me, you may not quite be sure how this commemoration got its start. So, being the inquisitive type that I am, I did some digging and came across the story of a fascinating individual: Carter Godwin Woodson.
Woodson was born in Virginia on December 19, 1875, the first of nine children to former slaves James and Eliza Woodson. The family moved to West Virginia when his father learned that a high school for Black students was being built. Carter was a bright youth, but instead of focusing on educational pursuits he worked as a sharecropper and a miner to help his family make ends meet. He finally got his chance to attend high school at the age of 20 — and was such an apt student that he was able to complete a four-year degree in under two.
While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree from Berea College in Kentucky, he taught in a school founded by Black coal miners for the purpose of educating their children. After graduating from Berea he attended the University of Chicago, where he earned both another Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in European history. After serving as a school superintendent in the Philippines for four years, he returned to academia; the next steps in his educational journey took him to the Sorbonne in Paris and to Harvard University, where in 1912 he became the second African American in the school’s history (after W.E.B. Du Bois) to earn a PhD.
In all his studies, though, he kept noticing a glaring defect: central events and contributions of Negroes (as they were then called) to the American story were either misrepresented or missing altogether. Thus, he devoted the rest of his life to the incorporation of the African-American experience into the grand sweep of America’s history. In 1915 he helped to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), with the mission of publicizing and celebrating the cultural contributions of African Americans. In 1916 he started the scholarly Journal of Negro History (today the Journal of African American History), and in 1920 he formed Associated Publishers Press, which would serve as a clearing house for African American-authored publications. He himself was also a prolific writer, authoring over a dozen books and many more journal articles.
Black History Month was kickstarted in 1926 when Woodson lobbied various schools and organizations to dedicate a week to the emphasis and celebration of African American history. He chose the second week of February to be “Negro History Week,” to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. As the celebration of Negro History Week grew, Woodson created the Negro History Bulletin, as well as elementary and secondary school curriculum, to assist educators in their task. Woodson died in 1950, but in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week and as part of America’s Bicentennial, the US government officially recognized its expansion to encompass the entire month of February. Since then, the celebration of Black History Month has also spread to Great Britain and Canada.
The many contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States simply can’t be overlooked — if you’re interested in digging into the work of some notable African American writers and artists, check out the following titles (which, trust me, merely scratch the surface):
- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Alex Haley, Roots
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Martin Luther King, Jr., The Measure of a Man
- Alice Walker, The Color Purple
- Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Happy reading, and happy Black History Month!