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The Origins of Black History Month: A Look To How Far We’ve Come

It is February, one of the most awe-inspiring months of the year. It is this month that the nation comes together to celebrate Black History Month!

It is in this month that we take the time to appreciate the pioneers that have made an impact on our history and our culture. African Americans around the country look to our ancestors to remember how they themselves influenced a culture. We recognize the brave individuals that have cultivated a people.

Photo via Bettmann Archives

The story of this notorious month starts in the September of 1915, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland came together to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The organization was dedicated to researching and sharing the achievements of Black people that tended to go unnoticed. After a while, the two decided to start the first national Negro History Week in 1926, starting a revolution around the country. This one week in February would go on to be recognized for decades. Cities nationwide recognized the Negro History Week and it soon turned into a massive celebration of life. Parades were held, memorials created, and stories retold. African Americans came together and acknowledged how far they’ve come through a history of oppression.

As a result of the growing support, the week evolved into something bigger. By the late 1960s, Negro History Week became Black History Month; this notion was especially supported in schools and on college campuses everywhere. In 1976, president Gerald R. Ford made Black History Month official, saying that it was time, “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Now, more than 40 years after the former president’s speech, Black History Month remains one of the biggest celebrations of history held in the United States. The newly named Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) continues to promote stories of Black heroes and heroines.

Before Black History Month, African Americans were faced with oppression and demise like no other race. It started with the slavery of our ancestors, where we were stolen from our own lands and sold as property. Historic figures like Sojourner Truth, who was a women’s rights campaigner and former slave, and Dred Scott, who caused a ripple in society with the famous Scott vs. Sandford (1857) case, sought change while others were chained.

After winning our freedom with help from Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and countless other activists, even more rights were won with the passage of the “Civil War Amendments”– the 13th, 14, and 15th, that is. Slavery was abolished, African Americans were offered citizenship, and states were prohibited from disenfranchising voters on the basis of race, all in the course of a decade. Additionally, the process of Reconstruction took place. These leaps in rights gave blacks the courage they needed to keep going. And keep going they did.

The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just a small period of time in the 50s and 60s. Jim Crow laws and “separate, but equal” schools began in the late 1800s after the Reconstruction era. While activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were speaking out on the injustices of African Americans, our culture in itself was making a major shift as well. The Great Migration, beginning in the early 1900s, was an exciting period, where blacks left the South and looked for a living in the boisterous North. In large cities like New York and Chicago, the arts took on a new meaning, with new artists, genres of music, photography, and films. The Harlem Renaissance was a notable landmark in African American history, where the poet Langston Hughes, the musician Louis Armstrong, and the singer Ella Fitzgerald made their debuts. This time period did not go unnoticed, and styles from these major cities spread across the U.S. throughout history.

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As time went on, civil rights became the topic on everyone’s mind. Reform of all sorts was put into action in order to give us the rights we deserve. In schools, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was pushing schools to integrate. In small businesses, students were sitting-in at white counters, where blacks weren’t supposed to be served. In government, legislative actions like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Leaders in the community, like the human rights activist Malcolm X, or Thurgood Marshall, who took justice to the US court system, took action in the black community. Countless African Americans around the country brought hope to a race that was formally left without any. For this, we celebrate just how far we’ve come.

This month is dedicated to recognizing trailblazers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Maya Angelou. Schools and daycares hold celebrations for people like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, continually making impacts in the life of young African Americans. Just look at how far we’ve come, and how far we will continue to go. Yes, February (although, the shortest month of the year) is, and will continue to be one of the most reflective and motivational months of the year.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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