The origins of Black History Month

Debbie Epstein, Head of Inclusion & Diversity (Sport), explains what Black History Month is, its history and how celebrating it in the workplace can lay the foundation for our education and levels of awareness and reflection.

In October, the UK celebrates Black History Month. For the entire month a wide range of events are held across the country celebrating African and Caribbean cultures and histories, including food festivals, music workshops and educational seminars and lectures. This month-long celebration, started in the United States and now has government recognition in Canada (1995), Ireland (2010), Netherlands (1863) and the United Kingdom (1987). 

In the run up to this year’s Black History Month and the launch of our updated Black History Month Toolkit, we wanted to take the opportunity to explore the month’s origins and significance in more detail.

Negro History Week

Looking back in history, the Black History Month we know today has its origins in Negro History Week which was created in February 1926 in the United States by African American historian Carter G. Woodson. This celebration was held annually on the second week of February, as Black communities celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglas’s on February 14.

In the aftermath of the slave trade, the purpose of the week-long celebration was to remind and educate the African American people about their contribution to the world and its history.  At the time, Woodson felt that the teaching of black history was essential for the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society, “If a race has no history,” he said, “it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

During Negro History week, teachers and churches would distribute the Journal of Negro History which was the official literature associated with the event.

Black History Month 1970

As Negro History Week grew in popularity, black educators and students at Kent State University argued that a week was not long enough and proposed a month-long event. The first Black History Month was celebrated at Kent State University from January 2-February 28, 1970.

In 1976 Black History Month was celebrated across the country in conjunction with the United States Bicentennial celebrations.  At this time President Gerald Ford formally recognised the month and urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history”.

Black History Month UK 1987

During the Thatcher era, following the Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth riots Black Britons were experiencing high levels of marginalisation and racism.

In response to this, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the Special Projects Officer at the Greater London Council coordinated the first official Black History Month event on 1 October 1987, with speaker Dr. Maulana Karenga, the originator of the Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of African-American culture held from December 26 to January 1 in the US.

Since then the popularity and breadth of celebrations has grown exponentially in to the widely celebrated national programme that we see today.

Controversy

Despite its widespread growth, the celebration of Black History Month, both in the United States and the United Kingdom has not been without controversy.  For example, some believe that the intense focus on the topic of Black History for just one month a year is misplaced and, instead the focus should be on integrating Black History Into mainstream education, news, and culture. 

Additionally, others feel that Woodson’s original inspiration for the celebration; educating and reminding Black people of their contribution to the world and its history, is often reduced to representations of Black Historical figures as simply slaves and colonial subjects.  It is essential therefore that as part of these celebrations we dig deep and explore the origins of Black History within our countries, overturn any myths and look broadly at the contributions made by Black people across a breadth of disciplines and areas of public life.

Another often raised criticism is that the act of separating Black stories and Black historical contributions helps to further perpetuate racism and separation.  For example, in 2005 actor Morgan Freeman noted, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”

Building on these perspectives, there is now a growing consensus that we cannot rely on Black History Month alone to address systemic issues of racism, nor can we rely solely on what is taught in schools.  We all need to be conscious of the positive achievements and contributions of Black people in our countries as well as relevant colonial history.  We need to take individual responsibility for our education and levels of awareness and reflection.  Combined, all of these approaches will help to chip away at entrenched attitudes, behaviours and bias and support wider culture and structural reform in our organisations.

Members, please take time to read our new Black History Month 2021 toolkit.

We have designed a suite of Black History Month webinars to create interest, spark debate and raise awareness. The webinars can be delivered in-house individually or as a package, during October and beyond. Contact your Account Manager to discuss your requirements or use our enquiry form.

As part of our commitment to supporting organisations to build anti-racist cultures, Inclusive Employers has launched an anti-racist toolkit, ‘Building anti-racist culture: a toolkit for your workforce’. To find out more about how it could support your inclusion goals, click here.