Each year, Black History Month offers ever-increasing opportunities to learn more about African-American individuals and groups who made significant contributions to our shared heritage. But the event itself also has an interesting scope and history that isn’t always publicized. Here are a few crucial Black History Month facts that may be new to you.
Gerald Ford first recognized Black History Month in 1976. But the efforts to officially celebrate the contributions of African Americans stretched back decades before that important moment. BHM’s origins actually began with “Negro History Week” in the 1920s.
Carter G. Woodson, a black historian and journalist, was also founder of the Association for Negro Life and History. In 1926, the Association announced that “Negro History Week” would take place the second week of February. Woodson chose this week to honor two heroes of the black community — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Woodson focused his early educational efforts on states with significant populations of black students. Not surprisingly, it took some time for the celebration to gain traction, especially when it came to school districts. Eventually, however, state Departments of Education in the southern region began to include Negro History Week in their curriculums.
Black churches and newspapers also got behind the educational outreach effort, making sure to include historical content during the second week of February. Many U.S. cities also began to recognize Negro History Week, with mayors issuing special proclamations.
So when did Black History Month replace Negro History Week? The effort kicked off at Ohio’s Kent State University in 1969. By 1976, the federal government was persuaded to officially designate February as Black History Month. At that significant moment in history, President Ford urged all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The importance of recognizing the historical contributions of black people isn’t limited to the U.S. Canada officially followed suit in 1995, following a motion made by Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to Parliament.
Many European countries also now celebrate a Black History Month, usually in October. The U.K. began its BHM recognition in 1987, with Germany following in 1990, the Netherlands in 2007, and Ireland coming on board in 2014. Inspired in large part by the American BHM, the previously-forgotten contributions of black British, Irish, German and Dutch people to their respective cultures is now celebrated.
School districts, media outlets and places of worship continue to be important conduits for making sure BHM makes an impact. These days, however, the event is also officially sponsored by several national agencies. Their involvement ensures that students and adults alike are encouraged to visit significant landmarks related to black culture, as well as to attend special events and even have home access to items of historical importance.
Official national organizers of Black History Month include the National Park Service, Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Archives and Records Administration, National Gallery of Art, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. Each of these institutions not only host dedicated web pages to BHM, but also hold special events and undertake significant public outreach efforts.
The National Park Service, for example, lists dozens of memorials and parks which are of historical significance. Of course, these include well-known venues such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. But you’ll also find listings for places like Oregon’s Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which houses journals and memorabilia relating to York, a slave who accompanied the two explorers on their famous journey.
No matter where you live, virtually every day of February offers a local or national event related to Black History Month. Obviously, those living near — or traveling to — the Washington D.C. area have a wealth of places to visit. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture certainly does BHM up in a big way, with field trip offerings, workshops, readings, lectures, concerts, and film screenings. The Library of Congress also hosts special events and spotlights special collections, such as slaves’ diaries and memorabilia related to baseball’s early Negro Leagues.
Yet states and towns across the U.S. are also doing their part. If you have school-age kids or grandkids, ask their teachers if they are visiting any local places of interest during BHM month. Supplement those field trips with your own family treks. A web search for “[Your state or town] + Black History Month” should yield a wealth of resources.
Be sure to check with your favorite museum, gallery, national or state park, independent movie house, library, and even restaurant to learn what kind of celebrations are planned. Whether you’re in the mood for an African feast or a heritage trail hike, you’re sure to find several ways to reflect on the importance of African American contributions to our shared history.
Of course, there’s no denying that February can be a time of snowstorms, sniffles, and holiday-depleted budgets — making even short BHM road trips a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to celebrate at home. Your favorite streaming service is likely to curate movies and shows that highlight cultural and historical milestones of African Americans. And don’t forget the wealth of books from black authors that you can cozy up with. In addition, digital archives offer an absorbing look at forgotten history. Be sure to check out a BHM website that offers links to sites like the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
For women in their prime, reflecting on the importance of intersectionality — the experience of being both a woman and a person of color — often becomes more personal with each passing year. Here are just a few important African American “women of a certain age” to celebrate during BHM:
Born during the Civil War, Terrell was an activist all of her adult life. She was one of the first black women to hold a college degree, and went on to found the National Association of Colored Women, in 1896. Well into her middle and later years, Terrell was galvanizing audiences at suffrage rallies, working on voters’ rights issues for African Americans — and even joining picket lines well into her 80s!
This “godmother of Civil Rights” presided over the National Council of Negro Women for over 40 years. Among her many achievements was working for the integration of the YWCA. At age 78, she helped form the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, among other later-life achievements.
At age 55, our first African American First Lady no doubt has many achievements ahead of her. After leaving the White House, Michelle Obama has led a tireless schedule aimed at raising the visibility of causes important to all women. These include advocating for higher visibility of women in the tech industry, making education available to girls around the world, and encouraging more women of color to seek elected office.
Named by Time magazine in 2007 as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World,” this producer, writer and director’s influence continues to grow. In fact, “Shondaland” isn’t just the name of her production company, but a phrase that has entered popular culture due to her astounding influence. Rhimes is particularly noted for her work in the television industry, creating countless hit shows featuring women of color, including Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Station 19.