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Brazos Excellence: Meet the "Father of Black History Month"

Do you know who actually started Black History Month?
Credit: Library of Congress
Carter G. Woodson, 1947

BRYAN, Texas — Editor's Note: This is the digital portion of our Brazos Excellence series, highlighting African-American leaders and business owners. To see past coverage, check out our related stories section. in this article.

Credit: KAGS-TV

The origins of Black History Month dates as far back as the early 20th century. 

A few years after the inception of the NAACP in 1909, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) with the help of Jesse Moorland, a prominent figure in the history of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). 

As for Woodson, the son of a former slave, accomplishments as an individual and scholar can only be described as stellar. Despite entering high school late, he managed to make up lost time, graduating in less than two years. He eventually would attend the University of Chicago, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degree. 

Credit: National Museum of American History Archives
Carter G. Woodson, ca 1940s, Scurlock Photographic Studio Records, National Museum of American History Archives. Source: Encyclopedia Virginia

However, his real accomplishment came when he became only the second African American after W.E.B. DuBois to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. Similar to DuBois, Woodson held the opinion that young African Americans at the time were not being taught enough about their ancestors, history and heritage.

"We should emphasize not Negro History but the Negro in history," Woodson said as he received pushback from naysayers. "Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."

In the second week of February 1926, Woodson began the first celebration of Negro History Week through a newsletter, but was later expanded to include the entire month of February. He chose the month because it contained the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in African American history.

The shift began to catch on in the 1940s, but unfortunately Woodson himself did not live to see the fruits of his efforts fully blossom, as he died on April 3, 1950 from a heart attack in his home in Washington.

By that time, many prominent African American men had left their mark in history, with individuals such as Olympian Jesse Owens by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games; Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. becoming the first Black general in the U.S. Army in 1940 and Ralph Bunche becoming the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 -- making not only African American history, but purely history itself.

In 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week, the ASNLH officially extended the week-long celebration to a month-long celebration. President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation honoring the spirit of Black History Month, which every U.S. president has since honored annually on January 31 before the start of February.

Outside of February, according to the ASALH, an ornament of Woodson is hung on the White House’s Christmas tree each year.

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