10 Facts About Black History Month

portrait of Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
by Bernard Grant, Ph.D.

Published on January 24, 2022

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10 Facts About Black History Month

Black History Month takes place in February, and is a month-long celebration of the wide breadth of history, contributions, and achievements of African Americans. Begun nearly 100 years ago as a weeklong event, Black History Month is now a month-long celebration of Black influence around the world.

Included in Black history are stories of activism against slavery and continuing racism, as well as a long record of Black life in America that spans over 400 years. Read on to learn 10 Black History Month facts you may not know.

Black History Month Began in 1926 as Negro History Week

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson — an African American historian who graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. — founded Negro History Week to highlight the history, lives, and contributions of Black Americans to American society. In 1976, Negro History Week stretched into a month-long celebration under President Gerald Ford.

According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which was founded by Woodson, "Black teachers in segregated public elementary and secondary schools engaged their students in an array of festivities—plays, pageants, reciting of speeches, essay contests, concerts, and other events."

Carter G. Woodson Selected the Month of February to Honor Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

Black History Month takes place in February for good reason. Woodson wanted to honor President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who were both born in February. Lincoln is well known as the American President who, in 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclomation announced the freedom of American slaves in the Confederate States of America.

Frederick Douglass escaped from American slavery in 1838 to become a renowned abolitionist, speaker, and writer. He wrote several speeches and books, including "A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave".

Black History Month Themes Are Chosen by ASALH

Each year, ASALH selects an overarching theme for Black History Month. For 2022, ASALH selected Black Health and Wellness as its theme. Its website states that:

"This theme acknowledges the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birthworkers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora. The 2022 theme considers activities, rituals and initiatives that Black communities have done to be well."

Civil Rights Leaders Helped Popularize Black History Month

In addition to Woodson, many civil rights activists and protestors contributed to Black history, including Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Mary White Ovington, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding member of the civil rights organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was a prominent Black intellectual who wrote extensively on Black struggles. He described Black Americans as experiencers of double consciousness, which describes the "twoness" of the African American identity.

One of America's First Black Lawyers Was John Mercer Langston

In 1854, John Mercer Langston passed the Ohio State bar to become one of America's first Black lawyers, and the first African American to represent Virginia in the House of Representatives. He also became the first African American elected to public office in the United States when he became the township clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855. Additionally, he was the first dean of Howard University's School of Law.

Black Students Protested for Black History Month

According to ASALH, during the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s, college students at Ohio's Kent State University led protests calling for the establishment of Black studies departments and courses focusing on the accomplishments of African Americans.

Students also demanded that colleges extend Negro History Week into a month-long celebration. In 1976, President Gerald Ford established the month-long observance in the United States.

Many National Organizations Sponsor Black History Month

Black History Month is sponsored at the national level by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Gallery of Art, the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Archives and Records Administration, and many other prominent organizations. Every February these organizations honor Black history with commemorative events.

Black History Month Is Celebrated Outside of the United States

In 1995, Dr. Jean Augustine — a Black Canadian member of Parliament — founded Black History Month in Canada. Celebrations take place in February, similar to those held in the United States. Augustine is thus known as the "Mother of Black History Month" in Canada.

In the Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, Black History Month takes place in October. While the UK's initial focus was on Black American history, the country now focuses on celebrating Black British history.

Many African Americans First Accessed Higher Education Through HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established to provide more higher education opportunities to Black Americans. The first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was established in 1837. Today, over 100 HBCUs exist.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary of Education."

Black Americans Are Protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1957

In 1957, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Until then, the federal government hadn't passed civil rights legislation since Reconstruction when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established a federal Civil Rights Commission to investigate and discipline those who practice discrimination, as well as the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice, which applies federal statutes to protect underserved Americans from discrimination.

Conclusion

Many African Americans look forward to a day when Black History Month will no longer be necessary. Unfortunately, for many, current events suggest that time has yet to come. Especially for young Americans, Black history month provides an opportunity to reflect on the past and use prior lessons to imagine and work toward a better future. Many Americans continue to feel driven by the same societal issues that motivated Woodson a century ago.


Feature Image: SeventyFour / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Many organizations and schools offer college scholarships for Black and African American students. Learn about the top scholarships for these learners. Black students face challenges at college. But with the right resources, they can thrive — find out more by reading this Black student college guide. College students of all backgrounds should read these 11 books by Black authors, from young adult fantasy novels to memoirs of social activists.