[Dr. Carter G. Woodson—educator/historian & publisher/late 40’s], 1948. Robert S. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records. Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
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Meet the man who created Black History Month

February marks Black History Month, a federally recognized, nationwide celebration that calls on all Americans to reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have played in shaping US history. But how did this celebration come to be — and why does it happen in February?

The man behind the holiday

Carter G. Woodson, considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history, is given much of the credit for Black History Month.

The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. He received his education during the four-month term that was customary for black schools at the time.

At 19, having taught himself English fundamentals and arithmetic, Woodson entered high school, where he completed a four-year curriculum in two years. He graduated from Berea College in 1903 and went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. He later earned a doctorate from Harvard.

How the holiday came about

Disturbed that history textbooks largely ignored America’s black population, Woodson took on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation’s history.

To do this, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He also founded the group’s widely respected publication, the Journal of Negro History. In 1926, Woodson developed Negro History Week. He believed “the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.” In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month.

President Ronald Reagan unveils a postage stamp of Carter G. Woodson at a White House Ceremony in 1984
Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Why he picked February

Woodson chose the second week of February for his celebration because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population:

  • Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader; though his birthdate isn’t known, he celebrated it on February 14.
  • President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in America’s confederate states; he was born on February 12.

For his work, Woodson has been called the Father of Black History.

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist (1818-1895). 

There’s a new theme every year

ASALH designates a new theme for Black History Month each year, in keeping with the practice Woodson established for Negro History Week.

This year’s Black Health and Wellness theme is particularly appropriate, as the U.S. continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

“This year’s theme explores the nuances of health and wellness in the Black community … [It presents] a new chance for everyone to gain wisdom and understanding on topics that don’t normally get discussed related to the Black community,” said BSAC president Matthew Francis ’22., as Texas A&M Today reported. “Health isn’t just talking to the doctor, but also the spiritual, mental, emotional, and financial (aspects).”

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