The man behind the holiday
Carter G. Woodson, considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history, is given much of the credit for Black History Month.
The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. He received his education during the four-month term that was customary for black schools at the time.
At 19, having taught himself English fundamentals and arithmetic, Woodson entered high school, where he completed a four-year curriculum in two years. He went on to earn his master's degree in history from the University of Chicago and later earned a doctorate from Harvard.
How the holiday came about
Disturbed that history textbooks largely ignored America's black population, Woodson took on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation's history.
To do this, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He also founded the group's widely respected publication, the Journal of Negro History.
In 1926, Woodson developed Negro History Week. He believed "the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization."
In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month.
Why he picked February
Woodson chose the second week of February for his celebration because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population:
Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader; though his birthdate isn't known, he celebrated it on February 14.
President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in America's confederate states; he was born on February 12.
In 2013, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement. While initially in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, the organization has evolved into a global network aimed at reducing the violence inflicted on Black people by those in power who act with racist hatred. And while together, Garza, Tometi, and Khan-Cullors created the movement, they are pioneers in their own right.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was a Black American author, professor, and activist. She was the first Black woman of any nationality to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Toni Morrison’s novels center around the Black American experience and confront topics including the consequences of racism in the United States, internalized racism, mental health and the psychological effect of slavery, and more vital conversations. Morrison is lauded for never shying away from a difficult topic, and instead confronting such topics head on to create imperative dialogue. While her entire bibliography is worth a read, Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon are a few to check out. Her writing style is beautifully poetic, raw, and heart-wrenchingly honest. Zaria Turner writes on Morrison’s impact: “Morrison’s impact went beyond writing novels. She also became a champion of many different issues facing America. Black female authors such as Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker were also activists during the civil rights movement and the rise of womanism. Up until her passing, Morrison was very vocal when it came to politics and social issues happening in America… Whether it is colorism, how we navigate relationships or dealing with psychological trauma from your past, Morrison was an important voice in the Black community, and she will continue to impact writers, academics and activists through her writing.”
Cicely Tyson (December 19, 1924 – January 28, 2021) was an American actress and fashion model. In a career spanning more than seven decades, she became known for her portrayal of strong African-American women. Tyson received three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award.
Having appeared in minor film and television roles early in her career, Tyson garnered widespread attention and critical acclaim for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder (1972); she was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Actress and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her work in the film. Tyson's portrayal of the title role in the 1974 television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the book by Ernest J. Gaines, won her further praise; among other accolades, the role won her two Emmy Awards and a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Tyson continued to act in film and on television in the 21st century. In 2011, she played the role of Constantine Jefferson in the award-winning film The Help. She also played the recurring role of Ophelia Harkness in the legal drama TV series How to Get Away With Murder since the show's inception in 2014, for which she was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series five times.
In addition to her screen career, Tyson appeared in various theater productions. She received a Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for her Off-Broadway performance in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Tyson also starred as Carrie Watts in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful, winning the Tony Award, the Outer Critics Award, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013. Tyson was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. In November 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
As an incoming president, Obama faced many challenges—an economic collapse, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing menace of terrorism. Inaugurated before an estimated crowd of 1.8 million people, Obama proposed unprecedented federal spending to revive the economy and also hoped to renew America’s stature in the world. During his first term he signed three signature bills: an omnibus bill to stimulate the economy, legislation making health care more accessible and affordable, and legislation reforming the nation’s financial institutions. Obama also pressed for a fair pay act for women, financial reform legislation, and efforts for consumer protection. In 2009, Obama became the fourth president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987) was an American lawyer and politician who was the 51st Mayor of Chicago. Washington became the first African American to be elected as the city's mayor in April 1983 after a multiracial coalition of progressives supported his election.  He served as mayor from April 29, 1983 until his death on November 25, 1987. Born in Chicago and raised in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Washington became involved in local 3rd Ward politics under Chicago Alderman and future Congressman Ralph Metcalfe after graduating from Roosevelt University and Northwestern University School of Law. Washing Washington ton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1983, representing Illinois's first district. Washington had previously served in the Illinois State Senate and the Illinois House of Representatives from 1965 until 1976.
Tarana Burke In 2006, Tarana Burke, an American Civil Rights activist, began using the phrase, “Me too,” on Twitter in an effort to raise awareness about sexual assault and sexual abuse. However, it was something that she wishes she had said to other survivors of sexual assault before then- that they were not alone. That she too had survived. It is what moved her to create Just Be, Inc. to help promote mental and physical wellness amongst marginalized women and young girls. “Me too,” became a movement after the use of the hashtag gained popularity when actresses began coming forward with their experiences in Hollywood. Along with others, Tarana Burke was named “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine in 2017. As the Senior Director of the non-profit Girls for Gender Equality in Brooklyn, New York, she helps create opportunities for young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to overcome the many hurdles that they face. Through GGE, Ms. Burke tackles issues of sexism, poverty, racial injustices, transphobia, homophobia, and harassment.
Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.
John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020) was an American politician, statesman, and civil rights activist and leader who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966.
Lewis was one of the "Big Six" leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and police attacked the marchers, including Lewis.
Alice Walker was the eighth child of African American sharecroppers. While growing up she was accidentally blinded in one eye, and her mother gave her a typewriter, allowing her to write instead of doing chores. She received a scholarship to attend Spelman College, where she studied for two years before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College. After graduating in 1965, Walker moved to Mississippi and became involved in the civil rights movement. She also began teaching and publishing short stories and essays. She married in 1967, but the couple divorced in 1976.
Walker later moved to California, where she wrote her most popular novel, The Color Purple (1982). An epistolary novel, it depicts the growing up and self-realization of an African American woman between 1909 and 1947 in a town in Georgia. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1985. A musical version produced by Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones premiered in 2004.
Zora Hurston was a world-renowned writer and anthropologist. Hurston’s novels, short stories, and plays often depicted African American life in the South. Her work in anthropology examined black folklore. Hurston influenced many writers, forever cementing her place in history as one of the foremost female writers of the 20th century.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 15, 1891. Both her parents had been enslaved. At a young age, her family relocated to Eatonville, Florida where they flourished. Eventually, her father became one of the town’s first mayors. In 1917, Hurston enrolled at Morgan College, where she completed her high school studies. She then attended Howard University and earned an associate’s degree. Hurston was an active student and participated in student government. She also co-founded the school’s renowned newspaper, The Hilltop. In 1925, Hurston received a scholarship to Barnard College and graduated three years later with a BA in anthropology. During her time as a student in New York City, Hurston befriended other writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Together, the group of writers joined the black cultural renaissance which was taking place in Harlem.
Throughout her life, Hurston dedicated herself to promoting and studying black culture. She traveled to both Haiti and Jamaica to study the religions of the African diaspora. Her findings were also included in several newspapers throughout the United States. Hurston often incorporated her research into her fictional writing. As an author Hurston, started publishing short stories as early as 1920. Unfortunately, her work was ignored by the mainstream literary audience for years. However, she gained a following among African Americans. In 1935, she published Mules and Men. She later collaborated with Langston Hughes to create the play, Mule Bone. She published three books between 1934 and 1939. One of her most popular works was Their Eyes were Watching God. The fictional story chronicled the tumultuous life of Janie Crawford. Hurston broke literary norms by focusing her work on the experience of a black woman.
Hurston was not only a writer, she also dedicated her life to educating others about the arts. In 1934, she established a school of dramatic arts at Bethune-Cookman College. Five years later she worked as a drama teacher at the North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham. Although Hurston eventually received praise for her works, she was often underpaid. Therefore, she remained in debt and poverty. After years of writing, Hurston had to enter the St. Lucie County Welfare Home as she was unable to take care of herself. Hurston died of heart disease on January 28, 1960. At first, her remains were placed in an unmarked grave. In 1972, author Alice Walker located her grave and created a marker. Although Hurston's work was not widely known during her life, in death she ranks among the best writers of the 20th century. Her work continues to influence writers throughout the world.
Nina Simone, original name Eunice Waymon, (born February 21, 1933, Tryon, North Carolina, U.S.—died April 21, 2003, Carry-le-Rouet, France), American singer who created urgent emotional intensity by singing songs of love, protest, and Black empowerment in a dramatic style, with a rough-edged voice.
A precocious child, Simone played piano and organ in girlhood. She became sensitive to racism when at age 12 she gave a piano recital in a library where her parents had to stand in back because they were Black. A student of classical music at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, she began performing as a pianist. Her vocal career began in 1954 in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, nightclub when the club owner threatened to fire her unless she sang too. Her first album featured her distinctive versions of jazz and cabaret standards, including “I Loves You, Porgy,” which became a 1959 hit.
In the 1960s Simone added protest songs, became a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and performed at civil rights demonstrations. Her 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” exemplifies this period. Her popularity grew as she added folkand gospel selections as well as songs by the Bee Gees, Bob Dylan, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”) to her repertoire. Angered by American racism, she left the United States in 1973 and lived in Barbados, Africa, and Europe for the rest of her life.
Like her private life, her career was turbulent, and she gained a reputation for throwing onstage tantrums, insulting inattentive audiences, and abruptly canceling concerts. A 1980s Chanel television commercial that included her vocal “My Baby Just Cares for Me” helped introduce her to many new, younger listeners. A similar rebirth occurred in the 21st century when her 1965 recording of “Sinnerman” was remixed as an electronic dance music standard. Despite ill health, she continued to tour and perform, and she maintained a devoted international following until her death in 2003.