This week marks the final full week of February, and therefore the final full week of Black History Month. To celebrate, This Week in History is recounting the origin story of Black History Month, as well as discussing several important Black figures in American history who made their mark over the course of this week many years ago. So let’s dive in!
The story of Black History Month begins in Chicago in 1915 at a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. African Americans from across the country gathered in the Windy City, and among them was Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, a graduate of Harvard University, was well connected in prominent Black academic circles in major Northern cities. After attending the exposition geared to highlight Black progress in the past 50 years, he used his position to encourage Black history studies in American universities.
To popularize this field of study, Woodson created “Negro History Week” in February 1926. The week of Feb. 12 and 14 was chosen in honor of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, two historical figures that Woodson felt made monumental contributions to the advancement of the African American community.
The 1920s was the decade of the “New Negro,” as coined by Black intellectuals of the time, when African American life shifted from southern-based agricultural work to northern-based factory work in major cities. Black enclaves like Harlem, New York brought about a greater self-awareness of a shared Black culture and story. Schools in such areas devoured Woodson’s new holiday.
Though Woodson died in 1950, the 1960s saw the Civil Rights Movement, where African American university students reached new heights championing Black history education. When a week proved too small, “Negro History Week” was extended to become Black History Month. February 1976 was the first official Black History Month and has been endorsed by every U.S. president since.
On Feb. 23, 1868, 154 years ago, W. E. B. DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Arguably one of the greatest American writers of his generation, DuBois was a brilliant scholar who, like Woodson, attended some of the most prestigious universities in the world. After earning his doctorate from Harvard, DuBois could not find work at any major university because of his race. Thus, DuBois accepted a teaching position at Wilberforce College, an all-Black university in Ohio.
During his time as an educator, DuBois conducted several studies into Black communities and the anti-Black discrimination occurring in them. He critiqued Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, advocating for greater institutional change within the American political system to improve the lives of African Americans everywhere. In 1909, DuBois, among others, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a vessel for civil rights legislation that remains active to this day.
On Feb. 25, 1870, 152 years ago, the first African American congressman was sworn into the U.S. Senate.
While most Americans consider the Civil Rights Movement to be a period of “firsts” for the African American community, it should be noted that following emancipation (and even prior), Black Americans made tremendous strides in particular areas, specifically in the years of Reconstruction.
After the close of the Civil War, Lincoln and the Republican Party had plans to reorganize Southern society to help African Americans receive equal rights and protections owed to them under the Constitution. Lincoln’s assassination severely disrupted this process, and a series of ineffective presidents could do nothing to fill his shoes.
That being said, the plans that were carried out helped make Hiram Rhodes Revels from Mississippi, the first African American to serve in Congress. In truth, many Southern states in the years following the Civil War had Black majority populations, so it is surprising that more Black congressmen did not serve during this era. Nonetheless, Revels, the Mississippi senator took the same seat held by Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy five years after the end of the Civil War.
Once Reconstruction ended, however, Jim Crow laws took hold in the South, with one of the main hindrances towards African Americans being voter suppression. White legislators blocked Black voters from entering the polls, and therefore prevented more Black politicians from being sent to Washington.
On Feb. 25, 1964, 56 years ago, Muhammad Ali won his first world heavyweight boxing championship title.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali was a force to be reckoned with from an early age. Having won more than 100 amateur competitions before the age of 18, Ali was thrown into the spotlight after winning gold at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Upon arrival back in the States, he entered professional boxing and challenged the current heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.
8,300 spectators came to Miami Beach to see the “Louisville Lip” take on the reigning champ, where Ali promised to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” After seven rounds, Liston had won and Ali was the champion of the world.
To celebrate such an accomplishment, Ali threw a party in Miami, attended by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X. Moved by their conversation, Ali changed his name from Clay, the same last name of the slave owner who owned his ancestors, to Ali and converted to Islam.
On Feb. 21, 1965, 57 years ago, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City at the age of 39.
Speaking of Malcolm X, less than a year after his encounter with the world heavyweight champion, he was shot and killed at the Audubon Ballroom while giving a speech to the Black community of Washington Heights.
Malcolm X represented a different side of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Contrary to the peaceful principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X argued for social justice through self-defense and “any means necessary.” He was tired of seeing fellow African Americans harmed at the hands of Jim Crow laws or violent white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and urged Blacks to fight back and make an explosive statement to the politicians in Washington.
A fiery orator, he promoted pride for one’s Black culture and heritage as descendants of African civilization. He renounced his last name from birth as it was the name of his ancestors’ owners and renounced European Christianity to follow African Islam. Though his life was cut short, Malcolm X’s ideas would go on to influence future civil rights activists, including the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 70s.
Happy Black History Month, and see you all next week at our usual time on Tuesday!