The History of Black History Month

Featured image: Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash. Edited in Affinity Designer. Audio: recorded with Voice Recorder by quality apps, edited in Audacity.

4 for Now

When I decided I was going to write about the history of Black History Month this week, I came into it with some preconceptions. Based on what I know about the US, the education system, and white folks, I’d believed the rumors that we had “given” Black folks the shortest month of the year. I assumed I’d be reading about a president who offered a performative gesture so no one could claim he was being racist when he eventually did something, well, racist.

I was wrong. (About the origin, anyway. I won’t pretend to know President Ford’s motives in signing the proclamation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) So how did Black History Month really come to be? For the sake of keeping this to the standard four minutes, I’m going to skip some details. But check out the link to Darryl Michael Scott’s essay below for the full story.

In the summer of 1915, Carter G. Woodson went to D.C. for a three-week celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 13th amendment (the one claiming to abolish slavery). There, he and others had exhibits highlighting the progress African Americans had made. He was inspired to form an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. Carter, Alexander L. Jackson, George Cleveland Hall, James E. Stamps, and William B. Hartgrove formed what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Carter and the ASALH advocated for a week in February (to coincide with existing celebrations around Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays) in which to learn about and promote achievements by Black folks.

Carter specifically chose the week of these celebrations not only because it would expand upon a tradition (rather than creating a whole new one), but he also wanted the celebration and learning to expand from focusing on just these two leaders to celebrate and learn about all the folks, the Black community as a whole, and how they all contributed to history. And he had long envisioned it lasting more than just a week.

In 1976, it did. President Gerald Ford signed a proclamation to celebrate Black History Month for the entirety of February.

This year, the theme is Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. The focus is on the African diaspora and how Black families are represented across the US. The ASALH has some free community events on YouTube throughout the month. The link to the schedule is in 4 for Later, below.

I encourage you to learn more, but please don’t ask Black folks to educate you on history, especially if you’re not paying them for their time, effort, and for rehashing their trauma. And especially if they’ve never expressed an interest or openness to talk about such things. There are so many folks who already openly share. There are historians who study these things (though you should steer clear of anyone perpetuating the false narratives we learned in grade school). There’s Google. There’s always the sources I provide, too, but those are never exhaustive!


More than 4, for When You Have More Time

Speaking of not exhaustive, here are some Black folks you may not have heard about (or aren’t very familiar with) to start you on your way (CW on mentions of slavery, violence, murder):

  • Ella Baker, civil rights activist and organizer. Born in 1903 in Virginia to Georgiana and Blake Baker, the second of three surviving children. Her father worked on a steamship and her mother took in borders. She worked at the NAACP, and later founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was married to T.J. Roberts.
  • Dorothy Height, social worker and president of the NCNW for 40 years. She travelled extensively, working on five continents for four major national organizations. She was the eldest of two children, born in 1912 to James, a building contractor, and Fannie, a nurse. Both her parents were widowed and had children from their previous marriages.
  • Daisy Bates, civil rights activist, publisher, journalist, and lecturer. She was a leader in integrating Arkansas schools. Born in 1914 to Hezekiah Gatson, a lumber grader, and Millie Riley. Daisy was just three when her mother was killed by white men. She was raised by her mother’s friends, Orlee and Susie Smith. She met her future husband, L.C. Bates, when she was 15, and they travelled together before starting a newspaper.
  • Bayard Rustin, gay civil rights leader and socialist. He organized the 1963 March on Washington with A. Philip Randolph. Bayard’s mother, Florence Rustin, was only 16 when she had him in 1912, and he grew up thinking they were siblings. His grandparents instilled in him the concept of a single human family where all members are equal. His partner was Walter Naegle.
  • Hazel M. Johnson, considered the mother of environmental justice. She was born in 1935 in NOLA to Mary and Clarence Washington. She moved with her husband John to Chicago, where she worked several jobs while raising a family. After her husband died from lung cancer and her children showed signs of issues due to environmental conditions, Hazel documented the health issues of the community as she fought for accountability by the Chicago Housing Authority.
  • Onesimus, who introduced the idea of inoculation to the US colonies. His birth name and date are unknown, but because of the language he spoke, he’s believed to be from the Akan ethnic group in what is now Ghana. He was named Onesimus by Cotton Mather, after a first century slave mentioned in the Bible. He and his wife had two children, who both died young.
  • Emmett Till, a teenage boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 for interacting with a white woman. Pay attention to the accounts from the white folks involved. After they were found not guilty, the men who killed him admitted to everything. And the woman involved later recanted her story about Emmet touching and harassing her. As a source, I highly recommend the book Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley wrote, Death of Innocence. TW for the description of what happened to Emmett and photos from the open casket funeral.
  • Bass Reeves, believed to be the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. He was born into slavery in Texas in 1838. At some point during the Civil War, he gained his freedom and moved to Arkansas. He became the first Black deputy US marshal, recruited for his fluency in Creek and Seminole languages. He gained a reputation over 32 years as one of most successful lawmen in the Territory. He was married twice, first to Nellie Jennie, then after her death, to Winnie Sumter. He had 11 children.
  • Esther Jones, singer, dancer, and inspiration for Betty Boop. As a child, her parents, William and Gertrude, managed her. She used a style of scat that was borrowed for Betty Boop’s catchphrase. Esther and her family were not compensated for the use of her persona. Her works were also not revived.
  • Bessie Coleman, the first Black female licensed pilot. She was the tenth of 13 children, born to George and Susan in 1892. The family settled in Texas and worked as sharecroppers. She learned French to attend a school in France because no school in the US would admit her. She performed acrobatics in air shows and lectured around the country. She was married to Claude Glenn.
  • Dr. Jack J. Kimbrough, civil rights activist, dentist, and collector of books and African art. In 1935, when Jack heard there were no African American dentists in San Diego, he hitchhiked from Alameda. He befriended A. Antonio DaCosta, the only Black physician in the area, and together they started the city’s first Black-owned medical practice. Jack was the third child, born in 1908, of Samuel, a blacksmith, and Martha. He and wife, Quincella, had four children.
  • Dr. Daniel Hale Williams III, the surgeon who founded the first Black-owned hospital in the US and who performed the world’s first successful heart surgery in 1893. He was the fifth of seven children, born in 1856, of Daniel II and Sarah. Daniel III was married to Alice Johnson.
  • Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, the first Black women to qualify for the Olympics in 1932. They were not allowed to participate because they were Black. While both women were invited to the pool of athletes for Berlin in 1936, Louise was benched again. Tidye was allowed to compete but broke her foot and could not finish her race.
    • Tidye was born in 1914 in Chicago, daughter of Sarah, a factory clerk, and Louis, a foundry foreman. After retiring from competing, Tidye was the principal at East Chicago Heights for 23 years.
    • Louise was born in 1913 in Massachusetts, the oldest of six children. Her parents were William, a gardener, and Mary, a domestic worker. Louise remained involved in local athletics until her death. She married Wilfred Fraser, a Caribbean cricketer, and they had a son together (Wilfred also had a daughter).
  • Alice Coachman, teacher, track-and-field instructor, and the first Black woman to win Olympic Gold in 1948. She was the fifth of ten children, born in 1923 to Fred and Evelyn. Alice would train by running shoeless along the dirt roads near her house and using homemade equipment to practice jumping. She married Frank Davis and had two children.
  • Ora Washington, athlete. She held the American Tennis Association singles title for 7 years (a record until Althea Gibson broke it, ultimately winning 10 straight titles). She was born in 1899, fifth of nine children, to James and Laura in Virginia. After retiring from tennis, Ora went on to play basketball, earning herself a spot in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. After retiring from sports altogether, she supported herself as a housekeeper.
  • Wilma Rudolph, civil rights and women’s rights pioneer, sprinter, and teacher. She became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in a single Olympics game, in 1960. She was born prematurely in 1940 to Blanche, a maid, in Tennessee, the 20th of 22 children between her father Ed’s two marriages. Ed was a railway porter. Wilma suffered several illnesses in childhood, including pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. She was married to Robert Eldridge, with whom she had four children.
  • Lynette Woodard, retired basketball player and coach. She was part of the team that won gold in 1984 Olympic games. She was also the first female member of Harlem Globetrotters, 1985. She retired from playing in 1999 to coach. Lynette was one of four children born to Lugene, a fireman, and Dorothy, a homemaker.
  • Harriet Powers, folk artist and quilter. She was born into slavery in rural Georgia in 1837. She’s believed to have spent her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester, where she likely learned to sew from her fellow enslaved women. Only two of her quilts are known to have survived. She married Armstead Powers and had at least nine children.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, author, abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer. She was the first African American woman to publish a short story. Born in in 1825 in Baltimore, both her parents had died by the time she was three. She was raised by her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins. She married Fenton Harper and they had a daughter.
  • Harriet E. Wilson, novelist. Her one novel was published anonymously and was not widely known. Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovered it in 1982, documenting it as the first novel published by an African American in the US. Harriet was born free in New Hampshire in 1825 to Margaret Ann Smith, a washerwoman of Irish ancestry, and Joshua Green, a barrel hooper of an African American and Native American ancestry. She married twice and had a son who died young.
  • Harriet Jacobs, writer. Born in 1813 into slavery in North Carolina, daughter of Delilah, who was enslaved by the Horniblow family. Harriet’s father was Elijah Knox, who was an enslaved carpenter. She had a brother John. After three major attempts to get a publisher for her autobiography, she had the book printed and bound herself. She had two children with white lawyer Samuel Sawyer.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, poet, author, and teacher. The first African American to win the Pulitzer. Born in 1917 in Kansas, she was the first child of David (a janitor) and Keziah (a teacher). She began writing at an early age, and her mother encouraged her. She met activists and artists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka and Don L. Lee, who exposed her to Black cultural nationalism and inspired much of her subsequent work. She was married to Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They had two children.
  • Elizabeth Catlett, sculptor, printmaker, activist. She was born in 1915, the youngest of three kids, to a mother who was a truant officer and a father who taught math at Tuskegee University. She was awarded a fellowship in 1946 that allowed her to travel to Mexico City and work with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). She married Francisco Mora, printmaker and muralist. They had three children: Francisco, Juan, and David.

And if you think you know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and the other popular faces of Black history because you learned about them in school, I urge you to look deeper into their stories. What we were taught often omits or distorts the full truth about folks who don’t conform to the white supremacist-system.


4 for Later

  1. Origins of Black History Month by Daryl Michael Scott (11-minute read)
  2. The History of Black History Month by Gregory Carr, PhD (12-minute read). This one talks a little bit more about Carter himself.
  3. Do We Ask Too Much of Black Heroes? by Imani Perry (14-minute read)
  4. Black History Month Virtual Festival on the ASALH website. You can click the schedule image to open the PDF. Most of the events are free and open to the public, but their marquee event is ticketed. (Registration link is on the Festival page.)

Bonus Resources