The History of Black History
by Elissa Haney
Americans have recognized black history annually since 1926, first as "Negro History Week" and later as "Black History Month." What you might not know is that black history had barely begun to be studied-or even documented-when the tradition originated. Although black people have been in America at least as far back as colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books.
Black People Absent from History Books
We owe the celebration of Black History Month, and more importantly, the study of black history, to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born to parents who were former slaves, he spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at age twenty. He graduated within two years and later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. The scholar was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the black American population-and when black people did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.
Established Journal of Negro History
Woodson, always one to act on his ambitions, decided to take on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation's history. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915, and a year later founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history.
Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. However, February has much more than Douglass and Lincoln to show for its significance in black American history. For example:
- February 23, 1868:
W. E. B. DuBois, important civil rights leader and co-founder of the NAACP, was born.
- February 3, 1870:
The 15th Amendment was passed, granting black citizens the right to vote.
- February 25, 1870:
The first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels (1822-1901), took his oath of office.
- February 12, 1909:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded by a group of concerned black and white citizens in New York City.
- February 1, 1960:
In what would become a civil-rights movement milestone, a group of black Greensboro, N.C., college students began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter.
- February 21, 1965:
Malcolm X, the militant leader who promoted Black Nationalism, was shot to death by three Black Muslims.
- More from the Black History Timeline