Black History Month in the United States is one of those periods whose origins are near-mythical narratives. This is apart from the fact that its ubiquity means we do not usually ask how it began.
For millions of young people, African-Americans, and others, the celebrations have always been there. They are tradition.
What happens in February can be traced to the early 20th-century intellectual activism of historian Carter Woodson who is also credited as a pioneer of what is now known as African-American studies.
Woodson was born into an impoverished home in New Canton, Virginia in 1875. He was only able to earn a high school diploma at age 20, a process delayed by his family’s poverty.
He then took up teaching and subsequently furthered his education at the Berea College in Kentucky as well as the University of Chicago earning undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
He was the second African American to earn a doctorate degree in History from Harvard in 1912 apart from the more famous W.E.B Du Bois.
After the formalities of education, there was a decisive intention on Woodson’s part to contextualize the times and lives of Africans in the United States.
This led him to commit to such celebrations as the 50th anniversary of the emancipation of black folk in the U.S. in 1915. The inspiration from that year’s celebration moved Woodson and four others to establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
The ASNLH was to encourage scholars to commit to studying the life of black people in America. Hitherto, the narrative on black lives had been loose and lazy.
In 1924, Woodson founded Negro History and Literature Week which became a springboard to launch Negro History Week in February 1926.
For Woodson and his ASNLH, the aim was to create an atmosphere of curiosities about the history of black people in the U.S., while providing a platform for satisfying those curiosities.
All of this happened apart from the historical accidents of the February birthdays of two esteemed gentlemen in African-American history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Lincoln who was born on February 12 and Douglass, born February 14, were celebrated respectively for championing the emancipation of African slaves as well as offering some of the earliest black intellectual defenses against slavery and racism.
There is some evidence that Woodson’s Negro History Week was situated in February to tap into the interest and participation that happened during the celebration of Lincoln and Douglass’ birthdays.
It was Negro History Week that metamorphosed into Black History Month.
Along the way, it took several names such as National Afro-American History Month or National African American History Month.
The first U.S. president to acknowledge the celebrations was Gerald Ford in 1976. He urged Americans other than black people to participate and observe the celebrations in pursuance of national unity.
Today, the celebrations have been replicated worldwide even under the same name or in the same month. Some African universities are known to mark Black History Month in February and in the UK, the celebrations are in October.
But February as Black History Month was in fairness, a choice of chance, or if you believe in such, fate.