Tracey McKee – February 9, 2023
As February approached, I found myself wanting to know more about Black History Month’s origins. Who was behind its inception? When was it first observed? What were the hopes for the celebration? How has it grown? I began to research Black History Month and was delighted to meet Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History.
Dr. Woodson was born in 1875 in Virginia to former slaves who were illiterate. His father, James, a former Union soldier, worked as a carpenter. Primarily self-taught during his early years because of being needed on the family farm, Woodson eventually graduated from Huntington, West Virginia’s Douglass High School in 1897, where he juggled his education with his coal mining job. While teaching and then acting as principal for his alma mater, Douglass High School, Woodson completed his two-year degree at Berea College. In 1903, Woodson traveled to teach in the Philippines, recently ceded from Spain to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. Upon his return, he attended the University of Chicago and received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 1912, Woodson was conferred his Ph.D. in History from Harvard University. He was the second African American to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard — W.E.B. DuBois being the first. After completing his education, Woodson continued teaching and joined the faculty of Howard University, where he would eventually be named the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
As a dues-paying member of the American Historical Association, Woodson was not allowed to attend AHA conferences. This injustice, along with his concerns about the indifference the AHA had towards African American history and the biases they perpetuated in their historical accounts, spurred Woodson to co-found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), along with contemporaries George Cleveland Hall, William D. Hartgrove, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps. The organization’s goal was to research, consolidate, and preserve African American history. Dr. Woodson knew that collecting this history and disseminating it would help restore African Americans’ dignity and instill pride in their rich heritage and cultural traditions, contributions, and achievements as a people. In his wisdom, he also knew that the preservation and telling of this history was a powerful tool in the resistance against racism; having the country see African Americans as more than former slaves and beyond crippling biases by recognizing both their everyday and extraordinary achievements and contributions would destabilize racism.
In 1926, Dr. Woodson inaugurated the first Negro History Week, a celebration of Black history, life, and achievements. He chose the week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln – two people who were especially important to African Americans. Dr. Woodson was quoted as saying,
It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred, and religious prejudice.
The week was an overwhelming success. The annual observance grew to include a theme, teaching materials, lesson plans, and posters. Parades, speaking engagements, breakfasts, and banquets were held in honor of it. In 1976, Gerald Ford designated February Black History Month. Every president since then has done the same. 2026 will be Black History Month’s 100th anniversary of the heritage, traditions, accomplishments, and contributions of Black Americans.
(2023). Carter G. Woodson. NAACP; NAACP. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/carter-g-woodson
(2023). Carter G. Woodson. Wikipedia; Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_G._Woodson
Brown, Korey Bowers. “Carter G. Woodson.” ASALH: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, ASALH, 2022, https://asalh.org/about-us/our-history/.
Luebering, J. (2023, January 30). Carter G. Woodson. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carter-G-Woodson
Scott, D. M. (2023). Feb. 7, 1926: Carter G. Woodson Launched Negro History Week. Zinn Education Project: Teaching People’s History. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/carter-woodson-black-history-month/?_keywords=Carter%20g%20woodson
Scott, D. M. (2022). Why Black History Month. ASALH: Association for the Study of African American Life and History; ASALH. https://asalh.org/about-us/about-black-history-month/