Black History Month

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African-American History Month

Date Observed: February
Location: Communities Nationwide

A frican-American History Month is celebrated each February to honor prominent African Americans of the past as well as present-day leaders and others who have made significant contributions to the nation and world. It began in 1926 as Negro History Week. Since 1976 the president of the United States has issued a proclamation calling on Americans to observe African-American History Month with appropriate programs and events. Each February communities, schools, libraries, and other institutions across the United States pay tribute to African-American achievements in numerous ways.

Historical Background

Until the early part of the 1900s, few if any U.S. history books contained information about African-American accomplishments. References to blacks nearly always depicted the low status forced on them by the dominant white society. Because of the vision of Carter Goodwin Woodson (1875-1950) and others, African Americans' contributions and roles in history were largely accepted as integral to American history by the end of the century.

Woodson was the son of former slaves and one of nine children in the family. When the Woodsons moved to West Virginia, Carter found work in the coal mines and also enrolled in high school at age 20, graduating within two years. He later earned a degree from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard, becoming the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in history. For 10 years he taught high school history in Washington, D.C., and began his study of African-American history, believing that educating people about black history would promote racial pride and harmony. In 1915, Woodson and a few colleagues in Chicago organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of AfricanAmerican Life and History (ASALH). Under the auspices of the association but with his own funds, Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History, publishing the first issue in January 1916. To further his mission of publishing black perspectives on history (as opposed to those by white scholars), he established the Associated Negro Publishers in the 1920s.

Creation of the Observance

In 1926 Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History launched Negro History Week. Woodson and the other leaders chose the second week in February for the celebration because the birth dates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are observed around that time (see also Frederick Douglass Day). Negro History Week eventually became Black History Week. In 1976 Gerald Ford was the first president to call for Americans to observe February as Black History Month. Since then each president of the United States has done the same, though in recent years the observance is better known as African-American History Month.

African-American Achievements

From colonial times through the civil rights era-and, sometimes, to the present day- African Americans often have been prevented from entering occupations and professions dominated by whites. Once someone broke the color barrier that person became known as an "African-American First." Today there are so many "firsts" that their lives and achievements fill hundreds of books, and their success stories are part of AfricanAmerican History presentations. Out of thousands of people, a variety in diverse fields may be featured during the month.

As a public service, the U.S. Census Bureau sponsors features for a radio program called "Profile America." All year long "Profile America" offers vignettes of important observances, commemorations, or people. On each day in February 2006, "Profile America" recognized African Americans and their achievements in daily one-minute radio spots, airing free on stations across the United States.

On the first day of African-American History Month 2006, "Profile America" featured filmmaker William Greaves. His films have included documentaries about Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize; Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X (see also Malcolm X's Birthday). Over the following days, radio spots described 27 other African Americans and their accomplishments. Some are well known and others are not widely recognized. Days two through eight highlighted the following people:
• Robert Pelham, who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau from 1900 to 1930, patented two devices that mechanically totaled statistical tables.
• Evelyn Ashford, one of the world's fastest sprinters, won five Olympic medals - four gold and one silver - during the 1980s and 1990s.
• Maurice Ashley became the first African American to achieve the distinction of international grand master in chess in 1999.
• Dorothy West, associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, was a magazine publisher and author of short stories and books such as The Living Is Easy and The Wedding: A Novel.
• Sarah Goode, a former slave who was freed after the Civil War, opened a furniture store in Chicago, invented a fold-up cabinet bed, and in 1885 became the first African-American woman to hold a patent for an invention.
• Fannie Lou Hammer organized voter registration drives in the 1960s and, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, led an effort to unseat the all-white delegation from Mississippi.
• Captain Frederick Branch became the first African American to be commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps in 1945.

Among others featured were pianist and vocalist Bobby Short; Army officer, physician, and judge Martin Robinson Delany; U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; publisher John Johnson; National Football League coach Tony Dungy; award-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry; traditional jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet; inventor Miriam Benjamin, who received a patent in 1888 for a hotel "signal chair" that lit up when a guest wanted service; cell scientist Ernest Just; poet Arna Bontemps; Dr. George Grant, a dentist who created the first golf tee, which he patented in 1899; Vietnam veteran Sherian Cadoria, an African-American woman who retired as a brigadier general; and former slave Lewis Temple, who developed a whaling harpoon in 1848.

Others profiled were Harriet Tubman, who led slaves from the South to freedom in the North (see also Harriet Tubman Day); famed photojournalist, film director, and poet Gordon Parks; civil rights worker C. DeLores Tucker, Pennsylvania's first African-American secretary of state; inventor George Edward Alcorn Jr., whose expertise is nuclear and molecular physics at the Goddard Space Flight Center; George Washington Bush, a pioneer who went West by wagon train in 1844; and Edward Davis of Detroit, a 1996 inductee in the Automotive Hall of Fame as the first African-American new car dealer.

Historic Sites

During African-American History Month, many individuals and tour groups visit National Park Service historic sites that commemorate African Americans, although people visit these places throughout the year as well. One of the sites is in Boston, Massa"separate but equal" educational facilities, declaring them unconstitutional. The Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Alabama, welcomes visitors to the home of George Washington Carver, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, and the Carver Museum. Also located on the site are original buildings designed by Robert R. Taylor, the first African American to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tuskegee students constructed the buildings (see also George Washington Carver Day).

In Richmond, Virginia, the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site was once the home of a prominent African-American woman. Walker was the first woman in the United States to establish a bank and serve as its president. Guided tours of the house are provided at the site, and a video illustrates her life as a civic leader and businesswoman.

The National Register of Historic Places lists numerous sites that have significant ties to African-American history and are recognized during the month. In Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, there are several historic places, among them the Madame C. J. Walker Building, a National Historic Landmark. It is a museum that documents the life of successful businesswoman Madame Walker, who developed, manufactured, and sold formulas for hair care and other beauty products for black women. She was also the first African-American millionaire.

Baltimore, Maryland, touts its numerous African-American historical sites of interest to visitors during Black History Month as well as at other times of the year. The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum houses lifelike African-American wax figures that represent various periods in black history. The museum also has a replica of a slave ship. At the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center there are memorabilia and artifacts honoring the life of Blake. Other historic sites in Baltimore include buildings where Frederick Douglass lived and worked; headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and St. Francis Academy, a black educational institution established in 1828 and still operating.

Many other cities across the United States also call attention to markers, monuments, museums, schools, and other buildings associated with African-American heritage. These structures provide tie-ins with notable African Americans featured in educational programs offered during the month.


As with other national holidays and observances, the U.S. president issues a proclamation calling on Americans to mark the occasion with appropriate programs and activities designed to honor African Americans' contributions to the nation.

Throughout February, books, magazine articles, newspaper features, Internet sites, television documentaries, videos, and other materials feature scholars, explorers, civil rights leaders, authors, poets, journalists, musicians, artists, sports and film stars, and many others of African descent. Print and electronic materials frequently explain how AfricanAmerican History Month should be celebrated. But there is no single "correct" way. Observances may involve the celebration of a potpourri of individuals and events, or they may be designed around a specific theme or field of interest. As this month-long observance takes place each year, people from diverse backgrounds pay tribute to African-American heritage and achievements in many fields. For example, in Los Angeles, California, the Pan African Film & Arts Festival is billed as the largest African-American History Month event in the nation.

At religious institutions a common practice is to reflect on the lives of such historical figures as Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (see also Founder's Day/Richard Allen's Birthday); Peter Spencer, founder of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church (see also African Methodist August Quarterly); and prominent abolitionists and civil rights pioneers, such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks (see also Frederick Douglass Day; Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday; and Rosa Parks Day).

Libraries mark African-American History Month with tables and showcases displaying titles about African Americans or by African-American authors. Some libraries also participate in the annual African-American Read-In, sponsored by the Black Caucus of the If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks to children at a school in Harlem, New York. National Council of English Teachers (NCET). The yearly event, which is also designed to encourage literacy, takes place in elementary and secondary schools, on university campuses, in bookstores and churches. Local celebrities, community leaders, and students read from works by their favorite African-American writers or African-American authors read from their works.

Along with reading, writing is usually emphasized in schools during the observance. Many states have school essay contests with specific themes for Black History Month. Rewards for such essay contests range from savings bonds to college scholarships. In Florida, for example, the state sponsors an annual essay contest that is just one of numerous events during the month to commemorate Florida's African-American heritage. The theme for 2006 was "What Impact has an African-American Athlete from Florida Had on My Life?"

African-American athletes are often the subjects of tributes during Black History Month. Some popular figures are Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break the color barrier in the modern era of major league baseball (see also Jackie Robinson Day); Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first black heavyweight boxing champion; boxers Joe Louis (1914-1981) and Muhammad Ali (1942-); Jessie Owens (1913-1980), famous track star and winner of Olympic gold medals; James "Jim" Brown (1934-), a football legend inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame; basketball great Michael Jordan (1961-); tennis stars Arthur Ashe (1943-1993), Serena Williams (1981-) and Venus Williams (1980-); track star and Olympic medal winner Jacqueline "Jackie" Joyner-Kersee (1962-); and many more.

Contacts and Web Sites

"African American History Month 2006" National Park Service National Register of Historic Places

"The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture"

Association for the Study of African-American Life and History C. B. Powell Bldg. 525 Bryant St., Ste. C142 Washington, DC 20059 202-865-0053; fax: 202-265-7920

"Black History Month Resources," a U.S. Department of Education site that contains links to web pages related to African-American history

"Celebrating African American History & Culture: Our Shared History" National Park Service

Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center 847 N. Howard St. Baltimore, MD 21201 410-225-3130; fax: 410-225-3139

The HistoryMakers, an organization that collects videos, oral histories, and other materials on African-American heritage 1900 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60616 312-674-1900; fax: 312-674-1915

Madame C. J. Walker Building 617 Indiana Ave. Indianapolis, IN 46202 317-236-2099; fax: 317-236-2097

National Civil Rights Museum 450 Mulberry St. Memphis, TN 38103 901-521-9699; fax: 901-521-9740

National Great Blacks in Wax Museum 1601-03 E. North Ave. Baltimore, MD 21213 410-563-3404; fax: 410-563-7806 or

Further Reading

Cantor, George. Historic Landmarks of Black America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Curtis, Nancy C. Black Heritage Sites: The North. New York: The New Press, 1996. ---. Black Heritage Sites: The South. New York: The New Press, 1996. Muwakkil, Salim. "Black History Month Matters." In These Times, January 2006. http: // Savage, Beth. African American Historic Places. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Smith, Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2003. Webster, Raymond B. African American Firsts in Science & Technology. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1999. West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Woodson, Carter. The Mis-Education of the Negro. 1933. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1977.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Black History Month

Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, which was established in February 1926 by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Expanded in 1976 to a month-long observance, this celebration of the contributions and achievements of African Americans was initially designed to encompass the birthday of the abolitionist orator and journalist Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) on February 14 as well as Abraham Lincoln's Birthday. The event is widely observed by schools, churches, libraries, clubs, and organizations wishing to draw attention to the contributions of African Americans.
Douglass was a fugitive slave who assumed this name when, by posing as a sailor, he escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts. His former master's wife had secretly taught him to read and write, and after his escape Douglass became a skilled orator who lectured widely in favor of abolition. He settled for a while in Rochester, New York, where he founded an anti-slavery newspaper, and eventually ended up in Washington, D.C., where he held a number of government positions. One of his former residences there now houses the Museum of African Art and the Frederick Douglass Institute.
The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History
CB Powell Bldg.
525 Bryant St., Ste. C142
Washington, D.C. 20059
202-865-0053; fax: 202-265-7920
AAH -2007, p. 9
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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