Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February (2024)

At the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, African Americans carry placards demanding equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing and an end to bias. Warren K Leffler/Universal History Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Warren K Leffler/Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February (2)

At the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, African Americans carry placards demanding equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing and an end to bias.

Warren K Leffler/Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Every February, the U.S. honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have helped shape the nation. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country's history.

This year's theme, Black Health and Wellness, pays homage to medical scholars and health care providers. The theme is especially timely as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected minority communities and placed unique burdens on Black health care professionals.

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"There is no American history without African American history," said Sara Clarke Kaplan, executive director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. The Black experience, she said, is embedded in "everything we think of as 'American history.' "

First, there was Negro History Week

Critics have long argued that Black history should be taught and celebrated year-round, not just during one month each year.

It was Carter G. Woodson, the "father of Black history," who first set out in 1926 to designate a time to promote and educate people about Black history and culture, according to W. Marvin Dulaney. He is a historian and the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Woodson envisioned a weeklong celebration to encourage the coordinated teaching of Black history in public schools. He designated the second week of February as Negro History Week and galvanized fellow historians through the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which he founded in 1915. (ASNLH later became ASALH.)

The idea wasn't to place limitations but really to focus and broaden the nation's consciousness.

Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February (4)

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was an American historian, a scholar and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson was instrumental in launching Negro History Week in 1926. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

"Woodson's goal from the very beginning was to make the celebration of Black history in the field of history a 'serious area of study,' " said Albert Broussard, a professor of Afro-American history at Texas A&M University.

The idea eventually grew in acceptance, and by the late 1960s, Negro History Week had evolved into what is now known as Black History Month. Protests around racial injustice, inequality and anti-imperialism that were occurring in many parts of the U.S. were pivotal to the change.

Colleges and universities also began to hold commemorations, with Kent State University being one of the first, according to Kaplan.

Fifty years after the first celebrations, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month during the country's 1976 bicentennial. Ford called upon Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history," History.com reports.

Why February was chosen as Black History Month

February was chosen primarily because the second week of the month coincides with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln was influential in the emancipation of slaves, and Douglass, a former slave, was a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery.

Lincoln and Douglass were each born in the second week of February, so it was traditionally a time when African Americans would hold celebrations in honor of emancipation, Kaplan said. (Douglass' exact date of birth wasn't recorded, but he came to celebrate it on Feb. 14.)

Thus, Woodson created Negro History Week around the two birthdays as a way of "commemorating the black past," according to ASALH.

Forty years after Ford formally recognized Black History Month, it was Barack Obama, the nation's first Black president, who delivered a message of his own from the White House, a place built by slaves.

Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February (5)

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama host the annual reception for Black History Month at the White House on Feb. 18, 2016. Mike Theiler/Pool/Getty Images hide caption

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Mike Theiler/Pool/Getty Images

"Black History Month shouldn't be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington or from some of our sports heroes," Obama said.

"It's about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America," he continued.

(Canada also commemorates Black History Month in February, while the U.K. and Ireland celebrate it in October.)

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, Dulaney said, as the U.S. continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"As [Black people], we have terrible health outcomes, and even the coronavirus has been affecting us disproportionately in terms of those of us who are catching it," Dulaney said.

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"There's never been a time where Black people and others should not celebrate Black history," Broussard said. "Given the current racial climate, the racial reckoning that began in wake of George Floyd's murder ... this is an opportunity to learn."

NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicles the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.

Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February (2024)

FAQs

Here's the story behind Black History Month — and why it's celebrated in February? ›

Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform. It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively.

Why is Black History Month celebrated during February? ›

Why is Black History Month in February? Woodson chose February for Negro History Week because it had the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, and Douglass, a former slave who did not know his exact birthday, celebrated his on Feb.

What is the history behind Black History Month? ›

Black History Month

Woodson's devotion to showcasing the contributions of Black Americans bore fruit in 1926 when he launched Negro History Week in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson's concept was later expanded into Black History Month.

What happened on Feb 1 for Black History Month? ›

February 1, 1865 U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signs the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. February 1 is known as National Freedom Day in its honor. February 3, 1870 The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified.

What is the history month in February? ›

February: Black History Month

Black History Month began as a way to teach people about the history of Black Americans and their contributions to society, it sought to ensure that these perspectives were included in the national narrative.

When did February start being Black History Month? ›

The first official observance came in February 1976, from President Gerald Ford whose words established Black History Month in eloquent homage to Woodson and ASALH.

Is Black History Month celebrated in February? ›

February is Black History Month.” Since the 1970s that familiar declaration has introduced countless celebrations of African American history and achievement, from Black History Minutes on local television stations to the pronouncements of U.S. presidents.

Why is it important to celebrate Black History Month? ›

Black History Month is that time for African Americans to acknowledge key figures from our past and present. It's an opportunity to spotlight and celebrate the achievements that African Americans have accomplished in this country, despite the history of racism and oppression.

What are three Black history facts? ›

William Tucker, son of indentured servants from Great Britain, was the first recorded African child to be born in the colonies in 1624. Vermont was the first colony to ban slavery in 1777. In the 1770s, a Quaker named Anthony Benezet created the first school for African American children.

Who has the biggest impact on Black history? ›

These leaders have also had a significant impact in shaping the world we live in today.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most well-known civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. ...
  • Rosa Parks. ...
  • Barack Obama. ...
  • Frederick Douglass. ...
  • oprah Winfrey. ...
  • Harriet Tubman. ...
  • Medgar Evers. ...
  • Jackie Robinson.
Mar 2, 2022

Why is February so short? ›

To make the number of days on the calendar add up to 365 in a year, there would have to be one month with an even number. February was chosen to have 28 days as this was when the Romans honoured their dead.

What does February mean? ›

The Roman month Februarius was named after the Latin term februum, which means "purification", via the purification ritual Februa held on February 15 (full moon) in the old lunar Roman calendar.

What happened on Feb 15 day in black history? ›

On this day in 1851, Black abolitionists invaded a Boston courtroom and rescued the fugitive slave, Shadrach Minkins. Minkins fled to Canada and, with other African-American expatriates in Montreal, would go on to create the city's first Black community there.

What are the facts about February? ›

February is the only month to have a length of fewer than 30 days! It's usually 28 days, though February is 29 days long in leap years such as 2024. But why 28 days? The Roman King Numa had originally made all months 29 days, as Romans believed that even numbers were unlucky.

What Black History Month is February 14th? ›

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the entire month of February as Black History Month. Although the shortest month of the year, February was intentionally selected because of the birthdays of American President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12th) and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14th).

What happened on February 1st? ›

February 1st holds significance because that was the date Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865. On June 30, 1948, President Harry Truman signed a bill proclaiming February 1st as the first official National Freedom Day in the United States.

Why is Valentine's Day in Black History Month? ›

Each February we celebrate Valentine's Day and Black History Month. There is an important, but seldom (if ever) mentioned, connective link. Here it is briefly: Valentine's Day's symbol is a heart, and an African American doctor performed the first reported open-heart surgery.

Why is Black History Month the shortest month? ›

Historians say there's a simple answer: Black History Month ― which began in 1926 as Negro History Week ― is in February because it coincides with the birthdays of two important figures in the abolitionist movement: President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

What happened on February 22 in Black history? ›

On this day February 22nd in 1989, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince won the first rap Grammy for their single “Parents Just Don't Understand.” “Parents Just Don't Understand” is the second single from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's second studio album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.

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