The History of Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual observance in which we recognize and celebrate the contributions of Black Americans to our culture, education, technology, art, health, science, politics, and more. The U.S. as a country has celebrated Black History Month every February since 1976 — but how did it begin?

Dr. Carter G. Woodson was an author and historian dedicated to studying and preserving the contributions of African Americans through time. To support this education, he and several of his colleagues founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and The Journal of Negro History in 1915 and 1916 respectively.

It was around a decade later when the origins of Black History Month formed. During the second week of February 1926, Dr. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced Negro History Week. The timeframe was an ideal starting point for the observance because much of the Black community was already participating in historical reflection and celebration via the birthdays of two influential civil rights figures, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Woodson aimed for Negro History Week to shift the conversation away from the importance of individual figures and toward the achievements of the African American race. From 1926 on, communities across the country propelled its popularity and practice.

It wasn’t until 1975, however, that the observance of “Black History Week” was acknowledged by a U.S. president, President Gerald Ford, as he told the American public to “recognize the important contributions made to our nation’s life and culture by Black citizens.” In the following year, President Ford announced Black History Week was to be officially reoriented as Black History Month, and every U.S. president since has observed it each February.

2024 Black History Month Theme: African Americans and the Arts

To focus the momentum of learning during Black History Month, each February is assigned a specific theme. As an intellectual himself, Dr. Woodson was well aware of the deficit that existed within education of Black history, accomplishments, and life. His idea was that a theme would “bring the public’s attention to important developments that merit emphasis.”

Past Black History Month themes have included:

  • Black Health and Wellness (2022)
  • African Americans and the Vote (2020)
  • Black Women in American Culture and History (2012)
  • Let Us Have Peace (1946)

In 2024, the theme being recognized is African Americans and the Arts. From the visual arts and music to the culinary arts and language, this is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the enormous influence Black Americans have had and continue to have on arts and culture.

The New Negro Movement and the Black Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s included powerhouses like Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes in the pursuit of African American self-dependence and expression. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s established Black presence in art galleries and museums. Head to the Bronx in the 1970s and you’ll find the birth of hip hop fueled by visionaries like DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock who fused the new sound with lyrics addressing political, social, and cultural issues. More recent to today is art and media styled in Afrofuturism, a creative movement that reimagines African American life removed from oppression and instead steeped in empowerment, joy, prosperity, and technological advancement.

African Americans and the Arts in Metro Detroit

Of course, we can’t talk about African Americans and the Arts without talking about Detroit. The City of Detroit is one of the Blackest cities in America and has a heavy-hitting record of arts and culture trailblazing.

Motown, one of the world’s most iconic record labels and beloved sounds, was born here. Iconic Detroit spaces like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge played host to Motown legends like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and more. Motown Records hasn’t faded, either. Popular artists from Boyz II Men and Erykah Badu, to Migos, Lil Yachty, City Girls, and BJ The Chicago Kid have all contributed to the Motown sound.

Detroit techno started the wave of industrial electronic music across the globe. Credit for the first ideation of the sound is typically given to The Belleville Three in the 1980s, and the metro Detroit area today has a sprawling and deeply rooted techno scene. You can enjoy the pulsing beats and free-spirited community at a number of venues and clubs throughout the area, including the city’s annual techno festival, Movement.

Detroit also claims an impressive roster of literary giants including world-renowned author, publisher, and recording artist Jessica Care Moore, and celebrated poet and publisher, Dudley Randall. Both Detroit-natives, Moore’s work continues to circulate in poetry, publishing, and screenwriting today, while Randall was Detroit’s first poet laureate appointment and founded Broadside Press which published works from authors like Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks, and more.

The Black-owned culinary scene in metro Detroit is as diverse and exciting as the population. You can find soul food in places like Chef Greg’s Soul N the Wall and Detroit Vegan Soul; West African and Caribbean plates in Yum Village and The Jamaican Pot; cafe and bakery confections from Narrow Way Cafe, Sweet Potato Sensations, and Good Cakes and Bakes; specialty shops like Lobster Food Truck & Pitstop, Detroit Pizza Bar, and Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles; wine experiences from House of Pure Vin; and urban farms like Keep Growing Detroit, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and D-Town Farm.

Of course, there are many more examples of African Americans and the Arts throughout metro Detroit. Inspiration in Black art is often cited as a call to create for Black empowerment, resistance, revolution, joy, grief, history, and shared memory. Central themes include those of community, sustainability, care, and resilience.

This Black History Month, let us all live in these values and do our part to create a stronger, more caring, and more sustainable community. Support a Black-owned business this month and come volunteer with Forgotten Harvest as we strengthen our community’s emergency food assistance system. We’re better together! Happy Black History Month!