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Black History Month Library Guide

A Brief History

"Prominent African American activist Carter Godwin Woodson (1875–1950), a historiographer by training, was the first to suggest setting aside an annual period to recognize the experiences of African Americans. Woodson received a PhD in history from Harvard University, becoming the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. As a historian, Woodson studied African American culture in relation to the American education system. He became interested in the ways in which the legacy of slavery affected educational and intellectual attainment within the African American community.

Slave laws had explicitly forbidden the teaching of enslaved African Americans to read and write, and this helped to create a multigenerational educational disparity that greatly affected the degree to which African American contributions to history were recorded. Woodson believed that this early educational imbalance placed later African Americans at a disadvantage with regard to educational achievement and that this further affected African Americans’ ability to preserve their own history. Woodson pioneered a number of initiatives meant to address this issue, including founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, ASALH) in 1915, which began publishing the Journal of Negro History (later the Journal of African American History) in 1916.

Woodson initially found little support for his efforts outside of a small number of academics who purchased subscriptions to his publication. Eventually, Woodson’s initiatives attracted the attention of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist from Springfield, Illinois. Partially because he was a Jewish American, Rosenwald had a keen interest in helping marginalized groups. He dedicated 100 dollars per quarter to Woodson’s journal, becoming the first white American to support Woodson and the ASALH. With this funding, Woodson was able to expand publication of the journal.

In 1926, Woodson and the ASALH designated the second week in February as National Negro Week; they chose the week because it contains the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two major figures in African American history. From the beginning, Woodson made it clear that he intended Negro History Week to serve as a focal point for “celebrating” the role of African Americans in American history, rather than for airing grievances regarding the continued discrimination and racism suffered by African Americans. Woodson wrote in one of his annual bulletins regarding the event, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.”

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some African American leaders spoke out against National Negro Week, calling it a relatively superficial gesture to address the ongoing prejudice and inequality present in the educational system. During the United States Bicentennial, in 1976, the ASALH expanded Black History Week—as it was renamed in 1972—into a month-long annual observance. In a speech delivered that year, President Gerald R. Ford praised the concept, saying that “we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Black History Month gradually became more commercial into the twenty-first century, with many corporations using the month to produce products aimed at African American audiences. This led to increased criticism from within the African American community. In 1986, the United States Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, Public Law 99-244, which formally established Black History Month as a federally designated observance.

During the 1980s, the concept of Black History Month spread internationally. In the United Kingdom, the Greater London Council and a coalition of African European leaders helped to initiate a Black History Month in Britain, which is observed in October. In 1995, Toronto Member of Parliament Jean Augustine proposed, and the House of Commons unanimously passed, a motion to recognize Black History Month in Canada in the month of February. This parliamentary move came as part of a long-developing series of minor initiatives to recognize the contributions of African Canadians, especially focused in Canada’s major cities."

Issitt, M. (2020). Black History Month. Salem Press Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: 

Important Events

1619 Twenty Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, aboard a Dutch ship. They were the first blacks to be forcibly settled as involuntary laborers in the North American British Colonies.
1739 The Cato revolt, also known as the Stono Rebellion, was the first serious disturbance among slaves. After killing more than 25 whites, most of the rebels, led by a slave named Cato, were rounded up as they tried to escape to Florida. More than 30 blacks were executed as participants.
1777 George Washington reversed previous policy and allowed the recruitment of blacks as soldiers. Some 5,000 would participate on the American side before the end of the Revolution.
1829 The first National Negro Convention met in Philadelphia.
1857 The Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court denied that blacks were citizens of the United States and denied the power of Congress to restrict slavery in any federal territory.
1865 13th Amendment, abolition of slavery, was passed by Congress.
1868 14th Amendment was passed extending liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves.
1896 In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court upheld a Lousiana state law that allowed for "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races."
1918 The First Pan-African Congress met in Paris, France, under the guidance of W. E. B. Du Bois.
1922 - 1929 These are the years usually assigned to the Harlem Renaissance.
1937 Joe Louis defeated James J. Braddock to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black to play major league baseball.
1954 In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court completed overturning legal school segregation at all levels.
1955 Rosa Parks refused to change seats in a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. On December 5 blacks began a boycott of the bus system which continued until shortly after December 13, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court outlawed bus segregation in the city.
1963 The March on Washington was the largest civil rights demonstration ever. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. This document was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.
1965 Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem by members of the Nation of Islam.
1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In the following week riots occurred in at least 125 places throughout the country.
1969 The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools had to end at once and that unitary school systems were required.
2008 Barack Obama is elected the 44th president of the United States and the first black U.S. president. In his acceptance speech in Chicago's Grant Park later that evening, Obama said, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."