By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially made February the month when we celebrate the achievements of African-Americans. But why February? As it turns out, the decision to make February “Black History Month” is the result of a series of significant events that all happen to have transpired on the second month of the year.
Back in 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson chose the second week of February to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans in the country’s history. Woodson chose this week specifically because it coincided with the birthdays of two figures that were pivotal to abolitionism: Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, and Frederick Douglass, who was born on Feb. 14. February held other events of historical value, such as the birth of civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois on Feb. 23 and the passing of the 15th Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote on Feb. 3, 1870. African-American communities had celebrated these dates since the end of the Civil War, so the precedent was already there.
A Growing Movement
The literature of the movement quickly began to spread in churches and schools in states that had a sizable population of African-Americans. Communities started to organize local celebrations, host performances and lectures, and establish history clubs. Soon, mayors in various cities began to endorse it as an official holiday. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s helped this snowballing movement evolve from a week to a month. In February 1969, the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University first proposed expanding Black History Week into Black History Month. The following year, the university celebrated Black History Month for the very first time.
On February 10, 1976, President Gerald Ford brought Black History Month into existence with the following statement, “In the Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture. One hundred years ago, to help highlight these achievements, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. We are grateful to him today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization. Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about.”
This Year’s Theme: “Black Migrations”
Since 1976, every American president has designated a specific theme to the year’s Black History Month. This year, the theme is “Black Migrations.” The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History says the theme will focus on “the movement of African-Americans to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.”
Check out the Pennsylvania Department of General Services and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s permanent exhibit, “Trailblazers: Notable African-Americans in Pennsylvania History,” in the East Wing Rotunda of the Capitol in Harrisburg. The exhibit features eight portraits of African-Americans and details their significant roles in the history of the Pennsylvania. The portraits are changed annually on a rotating basis.
Want a good read? African-Americans of Harrisburg by John Weldon Scott and Eric Ledell Smith, details how Harrisburg served as a refuge and passageway for many African-Americans fleeing the South via the Underground Railroad and moving north in search of freedom and a better way of life. Available at amazon.com and at local bookstores.