February 2015 marks the 39th government-recognized Black History Month. But the month-long celebration of a history that was once disregarded and suppressed didn’t originate during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. In fact, its origins date back to 1926, when a historian named Carter G. Woodson spearheaded “Negro History Week.”
Before Carter G. Woodson became the “father of Black history,” he witnessed it firsthand as the son of two former slaves. An enthusiastic and gifted student, Woodson was the second Black American to receive a PhD in history. But though he was interested in the history of his race, he quickly found that libraries and archives just didn’t collect primary materials relating to Black Americans.
Eager to fill in the historical record, Woodson created the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and founded The Journal of Negro History soon after. As Jacqueline Goggin reports in “Carter G. Woodson and the Collection of Source Materials for Afro-American History,” Woodson used the Journal and his new organization to spread the word about the importance of primary materials. Though institutions like the Guggenheim and the Carnegie Institution refused to fund him, he was able to form powerful alliances with the Library of Congress and other organizations.
Woodson documented the lives of Black soldiers during World War I, solicited oral histories from survivors of slavery, and uncovered rare letters and artifacts along the way. As Woodson’s professional network grew, so did his conviction that a better understanding of Black history would help overcome prejudice in the United States.
“Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always a child,” he wrote in a pamphlet advertising the first “Negro History Week” in February 1926. “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
The first Negro History Week brought together historians and public school teachers, business leaders and educators, church leaders and lay people in a week-long celebration of the accomplishments of Black people in the United States. Woodson worked with state Departments of Education to further the program, and after Woodson’s death in 1950 it grew so popular that it was championed by leaders of the students’ movement at Kent State University in the late 1960s, and expanded to a month in 1976.
Today, Black History Month has been recognized by the United States government for nearly 40 years. Each year, the President issues a proclamation declaring February National African American History Month and urging the public to observe it. In this year’s proclamation, President Barack Obama cited history’s “countless, quiet heroes who worked and bled far from the public eye. We know that with enough effort, empathy, and perseverance, people who love their country can change it.”
The President may have been referring to the varied accomplishments of Black people in the history of the United States, but his words could just as well apply specifically to Carter G. Woodson, who worked so hard to make sure they were documented.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to capitalize the word “Black” and clarify a date.