Although Black History Month has devolved into a 28 — or sometimes 29 — day-long corporate festival that drains the energy of any and every Black student and organization on every college campus across America, it stands on a history of patience and perseverance that is not often told. 

The origins of the Black history movement can be traced back to the 1920’s to the “Father of Black History”: Carter Woodson. In 1926, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, or ASALH. During the second February of that year, which held the week in which Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass’ birthdays fell, they held an inaugural celebration formally known as “Negro History Week” where they established an annual theme for the week and provided study materials for teachers around the country. Materials included historical photos, lesson plans, scripts of plays and historical performances, and posters of important dates and people, and given the popularity of Negro History Week in its first few years, Woodson and ASALH adapted and expanded their mission. This included forming sub-branches of the organization coast to coast, the publication of an official textbook of African American history written by Woodson, and the development of a Negro History Bulletin that tied in articles of abridged historical lessons with the theme of the week. 

Although Woodson and his team of educators put a lot of work upfront into cementing Negro History Week specifically, their overarching goal was to promote the teaching of Black history in general. This educational movement spread slowly at first given the constraints of the period. For example, Black teachers in the South risked their jobs teaching such history, and therefore many of them taught it as a supplement to the curriculum of United States history. In this predicament, however, Black teachers continued to teach this history year-long. In an interview, one former student in the South claimed that his teacher would hide their Woodson textbook under their desk in order to avoid potential conflict with the principal. Black educators fought for their history not just because it was their history, but because it was American history. Many educators formed Negro history clubs at their schools to facilitate such learning, and events like Negro History Week reached students through the influence of such communities. 

Returning to the topic of Woodson’s goal, though, his own thoughts on the concept of a Negro History Week were pretty interesting. He himself was critical of the ‘cramming’ of Black history into one week. His goal was to stimulate the inevitable movement towards Black history and the recognition of the contributions of Black people to America, and although Negro History Week was his major contribution to this movement, he had bigger plans. He wanted students to learn this history year-round, and at one point had the idea of expanding the week into “Negro History Year”. Woodson even began a program to teach the adults who had missed this education when they were in school because he wanted past generations to share this knowledge. Woodson died in the fifties before he could see Black History Month come to fruition, but it was certainly the foundation that he had laid during his time with the ASALH in his 30 years of service that contributed to such development.

The mid-20th century saw a turn in the tide for Black history. Progressive schools like Syracuse University had begun to officially recognize Negro History Week. Networks of educators and Negro history clubs around the country were well-established and flourishing. When the ’60s rolled around a decade later with the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, the demand for Black history heightened even further. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and educators created schools that offered free and alternative education to Black students. These schools were known as Freedom Schools, and the nature of such schools allowed teachers to teach the full scope of African American history to their students. 

At colleges and universities around the country, Black students demanded that Negro History Week be extended into a full month. After much protest, the ASALH listened to the voices of the youth, and in the late ’60s, they shifted Negro History Week to a month-long celebration of African American history during the same month of February. This month is what we now know formally as Black History Month. After its creation, it took over a half-decade longer for the month to be recognized nationally. Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford issued a “Message on the Observance of Black History Week” in which he recognized “the contributions that Black citizens have made to the culture and life of our nation.” Then, in 1976 during his bicentennial address, President Ford recognized February as Black History Month, claiming that he wanted to “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.” Ten years later, Congress passed Public Law 99-244 and President Ronald Reagan issued Proclamation 5443 that both officially designated the month of February as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” To this day, every following U.S. President has issued an annual Black History Month proclamation recognizing its national merit. 

ALEJANDRO ROJAS is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at