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The Story of Black History Month

Left: WW1 War hero and professional footballer for Tottenham, Walter Tull, right: Ignatius Sanco, British 18th century composer, actor, and writer.

Every October in the UK since 1987, the country has celebrated Black History Month, a month dedicated to remembering the contributions of those people from African and Caribbean heritage, as well as Asian, to our country’s history. All too often the history books have written their stories out of our past and Black History Month acts as a constant reminder that our country has a rich and diverse cultural heritage.

The month started across the pond, with roots growing back some 90 odd years. So let’s go back to where it all began and discover the story of Black History Month.

The year is 1915. War rages on the Western Front as the world bears witness to the first mechanised war. It’s only been three years since the Titanic sunk and it would still be another twelve before penicillin is invented.

In America, a 39-year-old historian with a PHD from Harvard University, only the second African-American to earn a Harvard doctorate degree, establishes the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The mission of the organisation is to 'promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture to the global community.'

The man’s name was Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves who is now often referred to as the ‘father of black history.’ A year later in 1916, he founded the Journal of Negro History to help promote black history, which he felt was all too often 'overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.' Woodson above most knew the importance of education and believed it was key to reducing racial prejudices in his country. 

In 1926, Woodson and the ASNLH sponsored national Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month, with the main purpose of encouraging the history of American blacks to be taught in the country’s public schools. The week chosen was the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two men who greatly influenced the black American population.

It took time for the week to gain traction with the American public with Woodson creating pamphlets and educational materials to help promote the event. By the 40s, the weeklong celebrations had begun to attract larger audiences. Woodson even compiled and sold for just $2 a 32-page pamphlet called the “Negro History Kit” to help provide teachers with the tools to teach black history in the classroom. 

The civil rights movement of the 60s helped grow Negro History Week into Black History Month, an evolution that reportedly started to take place on college campuses, with the first month taking place in 1970. Six years later, with schools and community centres across the country honouring the month, it was officially recognised by President Gerald Ford.

It would take a further 11 years before it came to our shores. Stirred up by the identity crisis that many black British children faced, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo a Ghananian activist and coordinator for special projects for the Greater London Council, along with and Ken Livinstone, the then leader of the GLC, brought the American annual celebration to the London area.

The month chosen was October to coincide with the start of the new academic year. A deliberate decision to help maximise engagement in the minds of black British children and also instil in them a sense of identity and pride.

Flash-forward to today where the UK will see thousands of events across the country from exhibitions to workshops and seminars to theatre productions. Although the event originated from the States and came with a heavy focus on American black history, it has gradually become more British centric, with many events this year focussing on the theme of Windrush, the story of hundreds of Caribbean settlers who came to the UK 70 years ago.

The man who started it all, Carter G, Woodson, passed away in 1950, before Negro History Week became Black History Month. Although he would have been glad to see the event grow to what it is today, celebrated across multiple countries, his original goal of incorporating black history into mainstream education remains the driving force behind the month’s continued existence.

Perhaps one day the need for an annual celebration will no longer be required, when black British history is universally accepted as British history and is studied and celebrated year long around the country.