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Black History Month/Negro History Week

Black History Month/Negro History Week


The annual celebration of Negro History Week was one of the historian Carter G. Woodson's (18751950) most successful efforts to popularize the study of black history. Omega Phi, one of the oldest African-American fraternities, first celebrated black achievements on Lincoln's birthday (February 12). Woodson, an honorary member of the fraternity, convinced the Omegas to let the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which he had founded in 1915, sponsor Negro History Week in an effort to reach a larger audience. Woodson began the annual celebration in 1926 to increase awareness of and interest in black history among both blacks and whites. Months before the first celebration, he sent out promotional brochures and pamphlets suggesting ways to celebrate to state boards of education, elementary and secondary schools, colleges, women's clubs, black newspapers and periodicals, and white scholarly journals. Woodson chose the second week of February, to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Each year the association produced bibliographies, photographs, books, pamphlets, and other promotional literature to assist the black community in the celebration. Over 100 photographs of blacks were available for sale, and specialized pamphlets included bibliographies on various aspects of African-American history. In 1928 Woodson also prepared a "Table of 152 Important Events and Dates in Negro History," which he sold for fifty cents. Negro History Week celebrations generally included parades of costumed characters depicting the lives of famous blacks, as well as breakfasts, banquets, lectures, poetry readings, speeches, exhibits, and other special presentations.

During the 1940s, Negro History Week celebrations became increasingly more sophisticated and attracted even larger audiences. Woodson compiled and sold Negro History Week kits, posters, and large photographs that depicted periods of African-American history. Black women's organizations and social-service groups sponsored lectures and rallies for their members. Libraries, museums, and educational institutions held special exhibits. School systems throughout the country sponsored institutes to help teachers prepare. Teachers assigned students essays on topics in black history, helped them write and produce plays, and sponsored oratorical and essay contests. Wood-son credited schoolteachers with ensuring the success of the annual celebrations, and he regularly reported on their efforts in the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History ) and in the black press, highlighting the most creative and innovative activities. In some school systems the celebration was so successful that teachers established Negro History Study Clubs, which gave attention to the subject throughout the school year. White politicians made annual proclamations in honor of Negro History Week, and whites began to participate in special activities. During Woodson's lifetime the celebration became so far-reaching in its popularity that whites and blacks in Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and the Philippines participated.

Many of Woodson's contemporaries contended that the annual celebration was his most impressive achievement. Writing in Dusk of Dawn in 1940, the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963) claimed that it was the greatest single accomplishment to arise from the Harlem Renaissance. Similarly, the historian Rayford Logan (18971982) maintained that Negro History Week helped blacks overcome their inferiority complex and instilled racial pride and optimism. After Woodson's death in 1950, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) continued to sponsor the annual event, selling Negro History Week kits and assisting teachers, women's clubs, and civic associations with their celebrations. By the early 1970s the organization decided to extend the celebration to the entire month of February and use the term black. Politicians, the media, and the organization that previously had supported the effort to promote black history during the second week of February began celebrating throughout the month, while also continuing to press for greater recognition of black history throughout the year.

See also Association for the Study of African American Life and History; Journal of African American History, The; Woodson, Carter Godwin

Bibliography

Goggin, Jacqueline. Carter G. Woodson, a Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. Black History and the Historical Profession. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. Explorations in the Black Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

jacqueline goggin (1996)
Updated bibliography

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