Since 1976, every United States president has officially declared February Black History Month. However, the idea to celebrate African Americans and their contributions to the United States started much earlier. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard trained Historian, traveled from Chicago, Illinois to Washington, D.C. to take part in the national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of African American slaves. At the celebration, Woodson observed the thousands of people who had traveled to see exhibits highlighting the progress of African Americans since the end of the Civil War. The celebration lasted three weeks, and inspired by the immense turnout, Woodson decided to form an organization that would promote the scientific study of black life and history. On September 9, 1915, before leaving Washington, D.C., Woodson met with four others and formed the Association of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
In 1916, Woodson founded The Journal of Negro History and hoped that others would join him in spreading the word about the findings he and other prominent African Americans were publishing in the journal. Part of his mission to spread the message of Black achievement included asking his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers to help him. They responded by creating Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement week. While the work Omega Psi Phi was significant, Woodson desired a greater impact and thought that the ASNLH should take an more active role. In fulfillment of this desire, Woodson sent out a press release in February of 1926 announcing Negro History Week.
Woodson chose February specifically since it was already tied to celebrations focusing on Frederick Douglass's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays. Woodson knew that by choosing a month in which the African American community were already celebrating he would have greater success. Woodson was also interested in moving the celebrations away from what he called "great men" to the entire community. Instead of focusing on a couple of people Woodson wanted to focus on the Black community as a whole and the contributions that countess African American men and women had made to the United States.
The 1920s was known at the time as the decade of the New Negro, due to the raising racial pride and consciousness that was developed by the post-WWI generation. As urbanization and industrialization increased, African Americans began to move from rural areas in the south into the bigger, expanding cities of the north. This migration, combined with urbanization and industrialization, helped to expand the Black middle class. This increasing Black middle class became consumers of Black culture and literature and created Black history clubs. It was in this cultural flourishing that Woodson and the ASNHL received an overwhelming response to their call to celebrate African Americans.
Teachers and Black history clubs created a demand for instruction materials and Woodson responded by setting a theme each year for the national celebration and provided study materials, lesson plans, plays, and posters highlighting important peoples and events. Many high schools created Negro History Clubs and the ASNLH branches were formed Across the United States. As Black populations grew, mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations.
In the 1940s, the Black community began to slowly expand the study of Black history and Black history celebrations to the public. African Americans wanted to include African American history as part of school curriculum and not just as a supplement to United States history. The 1940s also saw some communities celebrating the full month of February, not just a week. By the 1960s, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month.
(Adapted from UNLV - Black History Month Resources)