The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month is now an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month and endorsed a specific theme.
The 2021 theme, Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity” explores the African diaspora, and the spread of Black families across the United States. ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) describes this year’s theme as follows.
“The black family has been a topic of study in many disciplines—history, literature, the visual arts and film studies, sociology, anthropology, and social policy. Its representation, identity, and diversity have been reverenced, stereotyped, and vilified from the days of slavery to our own time. The black family knows no single location since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations, and continents. Not only are individual black families diasporic, but Africa and the diaspora itself have been long portrayed as the black family at large. While the role of the black family has been described by some as a microcosm of the entire race, its complexity as the “foundation” of African American life and history can be seen in numerous debates over how to represent its meaning and typicality from a historical perspective—as slave or free, as patriarchal or matriarchal/matrifocal, as single-headed or dual-headed household, as extended or nuclear, as fictive kin or blood lineage, as legal or common law, and as black or interracial, etc. Variation appears, as well, in discussions on the nature and impact of parenting, childhood, marriage, gender norms, sexuality, and incarceration. The family offers a rich tapestry of images for exploring the African American past and present.”
For the trivia buffs, here are 10 little-known Black History facts”
- Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Born in Gambia and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston when she was 7 years old, Wheatley was emancipated shortly after her book was released.
- “Bars Fight,” written by poet and activist Lucy Terry in 1746, was the first known poem written by a Black American. Terry was enslaved in Rhode Island as a toddler but became free at age 26 after marrying a free Black man.
- Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, was the first novel published by an African American, in 1853. It was written by abolitionist and lecturer William Wells Brown.
- Anthony Benezet, a white Quaker, abolitionist, and educator, is credited with creating the first public school for African American children in the early 1770s.
- After graduating from Oberlin College in 1850 with a literary degree, Lucy Stanton became the first Black woman in America to earn a four-year college degree.
- Producer Sylvia Robinson produced the first-ever commercially successful rap record: “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. And along with her husband, she co-owned the first hip-hop label, Sugar Hill Records.
- Renowned singer and jazz pianist, Nat King Cole, was the first Black American to host a TV show: NBC’s The Nat King Cole Show.
- Stevie Wonder is not only the first Black artist to win a Grammy for Album of the Year for 1973’s Innervisions, but the first and only musician to win Album Of The Year with three consecutive studio albums.
- In 1981, Broadcast journalist Bryant Gumbel became the first Black person to host a network morning show when he joined NBC’s Today Show.
- In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. 24 years later, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win an Oscar for his leading role in Lilies of the Field.