The Origins of Black History Month
In 1915, Carter G. Woodson—a graduate of the University of Chicago—travelled to Washington D.C. to participate in an exhibition celebrating the elimination of slavery and black progress since emancipation. At the exhibition, Woodson promoted black history with his display. Following the exhibition, Woodson and other black intellectuals formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Additionally, Woodson founded the The Journal of Negro History in 1916. With the founding of these organizations, Woodson hoped to popularize the achievements in historical research conducted by black intellectuals; Woodson hoped that the promotion of black history would inspire future achievements by the black community. The black intellectual community responded to Woodson’s efforts with the creation of Negro History and Literature week, later renamed Negro Achievement Week, in 1924. Two years later, Woodson founded Negro History Week.
Celebrations of Negro History Week began to appear in schools and in public life; as teachers began to request materials to instruct students on black history, Woodson and the ASNLH provided materials that would serve to educate the nation. By the 1930’s, the celebration of Negro History Week had become popularized throughout America. However, prior to his death in 1950, Woodson was skeptical that the celebration of black history would endure. Following the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, Negro History Week began to take its form as Black History Month. In 1976, the ASNLH made efforts to institutionalize the month-long celebration of black history as “Black-” rather than “Negro-” history; that same year, President Gerald R. Ford became the first president to officially regonize Black History Month. Since the mid-1970’s, the month of February has been recognized as Black History Month by every American president
Three Influential Black Women Who Have Made Significant Contributions to Black History
- Marsha P. Johnson
“As long as gay people don’t have their rights—all across America—there’s no reason for celebration.” – Marsha P. Johnson
The Stonewall riots symbolize a keystone moment in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. The popularized legacy of Stonewall—particularly media coverage of the events—has often ignored the contributions of people of color to the organization and success of the movement. When discussing the Stonewall riots, it is imperative to highlight the contributions of Marsha P. Johnson; she was a black transgender activist and one of the leaders of the Stonewall riots. During the AIDS epidemic, Johnson continued her activism in coordination with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to protest against the high prices of experimental AIDS drugs. Additionally, Johnson supported organizations that served the transgender community and homeless LGBTQ youth. Johnson and fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera created the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) organization, which provided shelter and food for drag queens and trans women.
- Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, [and] poet.” Through her writing, activist Audre Lorde addressed issues related to racism, homophobia, and sexism. The intent of Lorde’s writing was to inspire marginalized and categorized groups such as lesbians and black women to react to unjust prejudice. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, Lorde’s writing consisted of impassioned political statements concerning racial injustice. Lorde continued to write about race-related topics, including racial profiling. In her poem “Power,” Lorde discusses her feelings of intense anger in response to the police shooting of a black child, aged 10. In conjunction with her writings about feminism, Lorde founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a feminist publication that promoted the writings of black feminists. Focusing on racial issues in the United States and worldwide, Lorde ultimately called for a celebration of racial difference within society.
- Michelle Obama
“There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” – Michelle Obama
As the first African-American First Lady, Michelle Obama resisted the racially-coded sexism she faced by empowering all women, especially women of color. During her tenure as First Lady, Michelle Obama focused on utilizing education as a way to maximize women’s potential and contributions to society. Michelle Obama has credited her education at Harvard and Princeton as the reason for her success; she believes quality education can help resolve race-related issues such as racial profiling, mass incarceration, and voting rights. The former FLOTUS’s passion for quality education has led to many education initiatives that will forever be a part of her legacy. She created the Let Girls Learn initiative to aid in building new educational opportunities for girls around the world, specifically those living in areas of conflict. Furthermore, Michelle Obama has stated the importance of higher education and has encouraged all women—especially black women—to continue their education. She has also demonstrated support for the Black Girls Rock initiative, which empowers black girls to learn, innovate, and serve.