Who Created Black History Month And How Did It Start?

The founder now has an ornament placed on the White House's Christmas tree every year in his name.
smartboy10 via Getty Images

Black History Month is a staple event in the national calendar – but how much do you know about who started it, and how it came to be?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is Black History Month?

This is an annual celebration where noteworthy Black figures are celebrated for their achievements and their contributions to society.

It’s marked in countries all around the world – albeit at different times of the year – in a whole host of ways.

Every year has a theme. In the US, where Black History Month is celebrated in February, this year’s was Black Resistance.

It looked at how “African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms and police killings”.

For the UK this year, the theme is Saluting Our Sisters. According to the Black History Month’s UK website, this “pays homage to Black women who had contributions ignored, ideas appropriated and voices silenced”.

It adds: “The road ahead may appear difficult and at times treacherous but sisters will continue to work outside of the box and forge change for the better.”

Where did the idea for Black History Month come from?

The concept for honouring prominent Black people in history has been around for some time now, but it was a while before it became the landmark event we know it as today.

After the death of civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass in 1895, schools in Washington DC began to mark a day which would evolve into Douglass Day, to honour his achievements.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass
via Associated Press
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Another two years later, in 1897, educator and activist Mary Church Terrell suggested turning Douglass Day into a holiday – it was soon decided February 14 would honour the historical figure, the day Douglass used to mark as his birthday.

It wasn’t until 1915, when historian Dr Carter G Woodson – later known as the “Father of Black History” – was inspired to take things further after going to the Lincoln Jubilee celebration in Chicago, to mark half a century since the US abolished slavery.

African American historian and author Carter G. Woodson
via Associated Press
African American historian and author Carter G. Woodson

He created an organisation, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) which created research and publication outlets for Black scholars.

He then helped to set up a week to honour Black history and literature in 1924, although it was only fully established as an annual occasion in February 1926.

Woodson deliberately chose a week which coincided with the birthdays of former US president Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Douglass (February 14).

According to the New York Times, Woodson wanted to grow support for the two figures who were key in the abolitionist movement, at the same time as expanding knowledge of Black history.

After Woodson’s 1950 death, mayors around the country began to copy his revolutionary idea – but it wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the 1960s that the week began to develop into Black History Month.

Students and teachers marked the first Black History Month in February 1969, and it was officially recognised by US President Gerald Ford in 1976, 200 years after the adoption off the Declaration of Independence.

He said the States must “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

An ornament of Woodson now hangs on the White House’s Christmas tree each year, according to ASALH.

When did Black History Month reach the UK?

Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who worked at Greater London Council, first saw the campaigns for Black History Month during a 1975 trip to Washington DC.

He told The Guardian that he started to realise he had to change attitudes in Britain in the mid-1980s after a disturbing conversation with a colleague.

He said: “I decided that every child growing up in the UK must have an appreciation and an understanding of Africa, Africans, people of African descent – their contributions to world civilisations from antiquity to the present, and especially to the growth and development of the UK and Europe.”

Addai-Sebo then invited high-profile figures including Winnie Mandela, Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis to speak across the UK in 1985 and 1986, to celebrate Africa’s contribution to the world.

He soon realised that, amid the speeches, lectures and concerts planned, that significant historical Black anniversaries were coming up – prompting him to declare 1987-1988 an African Jubilee year.

The advocate added: “I drafted a declaration for the GLC and other London authorities and it was circulated across the country.

“In the declaration the month of October was designated as Black History Month.”

It has been part of the national calendar ever since October 1986.