By Daryl Michael Scott
Carter G. Woodson chose February for Negro History Week for reasons of tradition and reform. It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping Black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the fallen president’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, Black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’. Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the Black past. He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success.
The 1960s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of Black history. Before the decade was over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month. The shift to a month-long celebration began even before Woodson’s death. As early as 1940s, Blacks in West Virginia, Woodson’s home state where he often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month. In Chicago, a now forgotten cultural activist, Fredrick H. Hammaurabi, started celebrating Negro History Month in the mid-1960s. Having taken an African name in the 1930s, Hammaurabi used his cultural center, the House of Knowledge, to fuse African consciousness with the study of the Black past. By the late 1960s, as young Blacks on college campuses became increasingly conscious of links with Africa, Black History Month replaced Negro History Week at a quickening pace. Within the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASNLH), younger intellectuals, part of the awakening, prodded Woodson’s organization to change with the times. They succeeded. In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, ASNLH used its influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month, and from Negro history to Black history. Since the mid-1970s, every U.S. president has issued proclamations endorsing the ASNLH’s annual theme.