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The Man Who Started It All

February is Black History Month in the United States. Here’s the story of the man who worked to make sure the experiences and achievements of Black Americans would be celebrated.

Portrait of Carter G. Woodson

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This portrait of Carter G. Woodson was taken sometime in the 1910s.

February is Black History Month in the United States. The roots of this celebration date back to the early 20th century and one man’s efforts to highlight the achievements of Black Americans. 

Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875 to parents who had once been enslaved. After earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University, he became a historian and college professor. Woodson devoted much of his career to studying Black history. During his career, he authored several books on the subject.

At the time, most scholars ignored or distorted the history of Black Americans. With few people writing about Black history, the experiences and achievements of Black Americans might have been forgotten. Woodson wanted to find a way to prevent this from happening. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). He also started a type of academic publication called a journal that was devoted to Black history.

In 1926, the ASNLH set aside the second week in February as Negro History Week. The organization chose this time of year to mark the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Around the nation, schools and towns organized events to celebrate Negro History Week.  

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement highlighted the importance of recognizing and learning about Black history. Many colleges began designating the entire month of February as Black History Month. 

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. President Ford wrote, “In celebrating Black History Month…we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Did You Know?

Eight hands raised in front of scrolling U.S, Canadian, UK, Irish, and Dutch flags.

© Amelie1—iStock/Getty Images Plus, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In the United States and Canada, Black History Month is observed in February. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands, it’s observed in October. In all of these countries, the purpose of Black History Month is to recognize the achievements and cultural contributions of Black people.

Check Out These History Makers!

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve put together a list of some amazing people you might not have heard about. You can learn more about them at Britannica School!

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895).

The first Black woman doctor in the United States, Crumpler helped expand access to medical care for Black Americans. She also wrote A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical books to be authored by a Black American.  There are no known photos of Crumpler.
Title page from a book called A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts

National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland (67521160R)

This is the title page of a medical book written by Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Cathay Williams (1844–1893)

Enslaved at birth, Williams volunteered to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, hiding the fact that she was a woman. She was part of a legendary Black regiment called the Buffalo Soldiers.
A painting of a young Cathay Williams in a Union Army uniform

U.S. Army/Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

Lewis Latimer (1848–1928)

After serving in the Union Army in the Civil War, Latimer became an important inventor. Among other things, he made improvements to the electric light bulb, devising the threaded socket that allows bulbs to be screwed into fixtures. Latimer was also a poet and musician.

National Park Service

Matthew Alexander Henson (1866–1955)

Henson was an explorer who accompanied explorer Robert Peary on many of his expeditions to the Arctic. Although Henson played a key role in these expeditions, Peary (who was white) received the credit.
Photo of Matthew Alexander Henson in a fur coat with hood up

Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (LC-USZC4-7503)

Dick Gregory (1932–2017)

Gregory became famous as a stand-up comedian but was also an activist. In the 1960s, he used his fame to draw attention to the civil rights movement and he worked commentary about racism and poverty into his stand-up routines.
Candid photo of an older Dick Gregory

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment

Tarana Burke (born in 1973)

Business leader and activist Tarana Burke launched the Me Too movement in the early 21st century to raise awareness about sexual violence and harassment. The movement spread worldwide in 2017 after allegations of misconduct by key public figures came to the surface. Burke has also worked to increase opportunities for underserved youth and in support of voting rights.
Photo of a smiling Tarana Burke at an event

Rachel Murray/Getty Images Entertainment

Celebrate Black History

A GIF that scrolls through the portraits of many well known and influential Black Americans

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-08978, LC-USW3-001546-D, LC-USZ62-127236, LC-USZ62-27663); Addison N. Scurlock—Michael Ochs Archives, Kean Collection—Archive Photos, © Michael Ochs Archives, Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. (object no. 2009.50.2); PRNewsFoto/XM Satellite Radio/AP Images; AP Images;  NASA; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (2803441); Pete Souza—Official White House Photo; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

You can read more about Black history and many of the people who helped shape it at Britannica School!

Find out at Britannica School!






:recognition or favorable notice of an act or achievement

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