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How did Black History Month begin? It was 2 men on a mission, and began with a week

Defining the Nation gallery at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center includes the early history of the African-American soldier.
Defining the Nation gallery at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center includes the early history of the African-American soldier. rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

As it is the last Saturday of February, I want to take an opportunity to speak about Black History Month. There are so many inspiring stories and individuals I could highlight here, but I am more interested in discussing just how Black History Month came to be in this country (and beyond).

The godfather of Black History Month is Carter G. Woodson. The son of slaves, Woodson was extremely educated; he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912. Woodson was particularly concerned with recording black history and culture. He felt that a culture or ethnic group with no record or ancestral memory is a group without roots, easily tossed about in the waves of history. In 1926, his efforts led him to co-create with influential black minister Jesse E. Moreland an annual observance of Negro History Week. It was set in the middle of February, the month in which Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born.

After Negro History Week’s first observance, it was picked up and strengthened by black churches and schools across the country. Progressive white schools also began to honor Negro History Week through local celebrations, history clubs and public lectures and performances. I find it encouraging that educators and spiritual leaders, still some of the most influential members of a given community, took up the challenge to further the mission of Woodson and Moreland.

In the decades that followed, through important moments in the fight for racial and social justice in our country, many city leaders and governmental officials began to formally recognize Negro History Week. And by the late ‘60s, Negro History Week was becoming Black History Month on many college campuses across America.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. He entreated the American people to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American president has recognized February as Black History Month.

I hope that this bit of black history on Black History Month during Black History Month (tee hee) gives you more context on how and why we have come to celebrate every February.

Natalia Naman Temesgen is a playwright and professor of creative writing at Columbus State University in Columbus.

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