Black History Month: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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A combination image shows U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (L) as he waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 from the Mall in Washington D.C. during the “March on Washington”, and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaking after being sworn in as the 44th president of the U.S. and the first black president 46 years after Martin Luther King’s march on Washington to raise public consciousness for civil rights. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Black History Month 2015 begins today, February 1 in the United States and Canada.

The “heritage month” celebrates African-American contributions to American culture and also serves as a reminder of the tribulations African-Americans have had to endure to obtain the freedoms that America’s forefathers promised its people when “all men are created equal” was written in the Declaration of Independence. African-Americans have been on the forefront of the civil rights fight to uphold this oft-quoted American ideal since their emancipation from slavery in 1865, and their granting of full citizenship in 1868 with the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Read on to learn about the history of Black History Month and why there is criticism within the African-American community about its existence.

1. It Began as Negro History Week in 1926

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Participants in a black voting rights march in Alabama in March 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King led the march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

The first seeds that would grow into Black History Month were planted in 1926 when black historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced that the second week of February would be “Negro History Week.” This week was chosen because of its proximity to two important birthdays in African-American history: “American Moses” President Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and famed orator Frederick Douglass (February 14). Both of these men’s birthdates had been celebrated within the African-American community since its emancipation in the 19th century.

The primary emphasis of Negro History Week was to coordinate with public school teachers of African-American communities to cooperatively teach black history during the week. However, reception wasn’t at warm as Woodson may have hoped. Of the entire United States, only the Departments of Education of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. adopted the week’s emphasized curriculum.

But Woodson wasn’t dismayed. He knew he had started something good, and eventually Negro History Week gained traction. By 1930, nearly every state with a large African-American population was celebrating their history the second week of February.

2. The First Modern Black History Month was in 1976

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U.S. athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism in the U.S.A. during the U.S. national anthem, after receiving their medals 17 October 1968 for first and third place in the men’s 200m event at the Mexico Olympic Games. At left is Peter Norman of Australia who took second place. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

By 1969 interest in black history had grown exponentially thanks to the efforts of many brave men and women who marched for civil rights throughout the 1960s, undoubtedly urged on by the work of Carter G. Woodson. This explosive era of history brought along the transition of Negro History Week to Black History Month (the term “negro” having become outdated and offensive). The first Black History Month was suggested by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in Ohio in February 1969. The first Black History Month was then held there the next year in 1970.

During the United States Bicentennial six years later, Black History Month was officially recognized by the federal government and ushered in by then President Gerald Ford. During a speech on the topic, President Ford said:

In the Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture.

One hundred years ago, to help highlight these achievements, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. We are grateful to him today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.

Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens.

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.

I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.

2015 will he the 39th annual Black History Month since its federal recognition.

3. Black History Month has its Critics

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U.S. President Gerald Ford at the White House in the Oval office in Washington, October 17, 1974. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Not everyone is a fan of Black History Month. Nearly every year Black History Month revives a debate about the continued effectiveness and equality of having a particular month dedicated to the history of one race. Critics argue that Black History Month only emphasizes hero worship of black historical figures that are then relegated to the confines of one month a year. BBC radio commented, “Is it right for children to learn about history in a segregated way?”

Iconic actor Morgan Freeman is a vocal critic of Black History Month, who summed up his objection to the month by saying:

“I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

Freeman also brought up the common argument that “there is no white history month” because the rest of the eleven months are white history month. Whether this is true or not is a matter of opinion. The United States has had a lot more cultural contributions than just black and white.

4. There are Other Black History Months

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President and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall on January 19, 2015 in Washington, D.C. on Martin Luther King Day. (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

Black History Month isn’t confined to the United States. In 1995, Canada began to observe Black History Month during the month of February also. In 2008 a bill came to officially recognize Black History Month in Canada. It was unanimously approved.

The United Kingdom also celebrates Black History Month, but the month designated is October, not February.

5. There are Other Heritage Months

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President Barack Obama (R) visits the Martin Luther King Memorial with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) after an Oval Office meeting at the White House September 30, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Black History Month isn’t the only heritage month recognized in the United States.

  • Irish-American Heritage Month: March
  • Jewish American Heritage Month: May
  • National Hispanic Heritage Month: September 15 to October 15
  • Puerto Rican Heritage Month: November
  • Gay and Lesbian Pride Month: June