Black History MonthUpdated: July 10, 2021
The month of February is a federally recognized commemoration for the contributions and achievements of African American figures in U.S. History. Every year, we remember trailblazers in science, math, arts and culture, politics, religion, and the military—encouraging us to celebrate the influence of African American key figures while overcoming adversity.
Black History Month officially began almost a century ago and was originally only celebrated in the second week of February. Then named, “Negro History Week,” the events and promotions quickly expanded into the communities and became what we know of Black History Month today.
The Father of Black History
The origins of Black History Month came from Carter G. Woodson, considered the “Father of Black History.” Woodson dedicated his life as a Harvard scholar of African American studies to push Black history to the forefront of public knowledge.
In 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (renamed Association for the Study of African American Life and History.) The organization’s purpose was to research and publicize the successes of many Black Americans and people with African ancestry.
Woodson went on to lobby for African American studies in public institutions and organizations, and his work eventually gained traction. In 1926, Woodson announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week,” honoring the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
At first, it seemed the designated observance would have little reception. The first states to participate were North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, as well as in the cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Despite the initial apprehension, the news of the event spread quickly, and Black communities and their allies were enthusiastic about sharing the information. Teachers wanted more supplies to promote the observance, churches shared literature, Black History clubs opened everywhere, and mayors from towns endorsed the holiday.
Woodson would die in 1950, but not without solidifying his prominence in Black history as someone who forged the integrity of Black Americans in the United States.
Black History Month at the Bicentennial
The first Black History Month initially took place from Jan. 2-Feb. 28, in 1970. Black United Students, and activist and advocacy group at Kent University, were the first to petition an extended time of observance. Many educational institutions replicated what the Black United Students had accomplished at Kent University.
On the heels of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, schools, cities, and politicians across the United States were actively celebrating the unofficial holiday as Black History Month.
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a federal observance at the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. He encouraged others, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Each President after Ford would endorse and proclaim Black History Month before our country, emphasizing the significance for all communities to recognize the central role of African Americans and Black Americans in our past, present, and future.
Woodson’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) continues to promote awareness of the contributions of African Americans and Black Americans, as they had done since their founding days.
Milestones in African American Military History
African Americans have served in the U.S. military pre-dating the Revolutionary War. Our nation’s armed force successes are due, in part, to the heroic efforts of Black Patriots as outlined in the historical milestones below.
(1770) Crispus Attucks, a former slave and significant figure in the abolition movement, becomes the first casualty in the Boston Massacre.
(1775) The First Rhode Island Regiment is formed and is thought to be the first Black Regiment, although it was not exclusively made up of people of color. The Regiment was responsible for taking siege of Boston, a significant move during the Revolutionary War.
(1862-1863) President Abraham Lincoln famously issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War, allowing Black soldiers to join the Union fight. Over 180,000 Black soldiers and sailors fought valiantly. The Bureau of Colored Troops was established during this time.
(1866) In July, Congress passed the Army Organization Act which increased infantry and cavalry regiments, a move that eventually led to the formation of The Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiment. Buffalo Soldiers were African American service members who secured the Western frontier, primarily to maintain governance over the indigenous peoples who would later give the cavalry soldiers their moniker.
(1917) The U.S. Army was the first branch to establish a Black Officer Training School in Iowa. The school would go on to commission 639 Black officers.
(1917) Governor of New York, Charles S. Whitman enforces legislation and the 369th Infantry Harlem Hell Fighters is born out of the 15th Infantry Regiment. The Harlem Hell Fighters becomes the first Black combat unit deployed overseas. France awarded the 369th Infantry Regiment with the prestigious Croix de Guerre award for valorous service.
(1940) Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. becomes the first Black Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. General Davis served in the Army for more than fifty years before retiring.
(1941) The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later became the U.S. Air Force.) The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties over the course of two years during WWII and received 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
(1942) U.S. military branches rapidly changes in favor of Black service members. Some of the changes included: 1) U.S. Navy accepts Black service members in all ratings and branches. 2) The Marine Corps follows suit of respective military branches and begins to accept the enlistment of Black Americans. 3) The Women’s Army Corps accepts Black women.
(1945) American Civil Rights Activist, A. Philip Randolph, creates the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Service, an organization that helped soldiers obtain legal and financial services for discrimination cases during service in the military. This paves the way for Truman’s Executive Order 9981.
(1948) Amidst threats of a filibuster amongst the Senate, President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the military. This issue ultimately led to desegregation in the Armed Forces.
(1989) In 1989, Army General Colin Powell becomes the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by former President George H.W. Bush.
Black History Month Today
Each year, the President delivers a proclamation and presents a theme to commemorate Black History Month. For 2021, the theme reflects, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.”
Three other nations recognize Black History. The United Kingdom began celebrating in 1987, Canada in 1995 (recognized by Senate in 2008), and Ireland in 2010.
Cristina Van Orden is a literary writer and active military spouse. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and taught K-12 English before working in editorial. Cristina currently resides on base with her husband and children.