The history of Black History Month — here's why it's celebrated in February

Depending on when you were born, Black History Month may not have been a national celebration.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, we look at how one historical event spurred another, and it all happened on Chicago’s South Side.

In September 1915, Chicago was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Carter G. Woodson was one of the many who flocked to the Windy City for this event.

"Carter G. Woodson was from Virginia. He actually was a son of slaves," said Bernard Turner. "And he came to Chicago for his graduate education … he got a masters from the University of Chicago."

Turner is a cultural historian, and the Executive Director of the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area — an organization focused on  highlighting Chicago’s Black history.

"I give tours from time to time and one of the places I stop is the Wabash Avenue YMCA," he said. "One of the most interesting things you always get — an "ah ha" moment is when you tell them this is where Black History Month started."

The Wabash Avenue YMCA is located in the 3700 block of South Wabash.


Now, back to Carter G. Woodson.

"While he was here in Chicago, he met with several people at the Wabash Avenue YMCA," Turner said. "Because he wanted to call attention to the fact that no history was being written for the contributions of African Americans."

"They couldn’t go to other Y’s in other neighborhoods because of restrictive covenants," Turner said. "African Americans had to live right in Bronzeville. They couldnt easily go and buy a home over here … or rent an apartment over there … it was a city within a city."

At that meeting, Woodson and the group decided to start the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which is now known by a different name.

"In 1926, they decided to have Black History Week," Turner said.

The Chicago Public Library system played a critical role helping this weeklong celebration get up and running — thanks to a woman named Vivian G. Harsh.

"She was Chicago Public Library’s first Black branch head within the library system," said Stacie Williams, Division Chief for Archives and Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

"She helped create the special Negro collection at George Cleveland hall branch," she said. "It was her collecting from around the country these documents and working with scholars like Woodson … to help build the collection … that outlined these various and artistic and scholarly and otherwise just fantastic elements of Black history."

When Negro History Week began,  many local schools and community groups depended on the Chicago Public Library for materials to share with their students.

Harsh's collection is now known as the largest collection of African American history and literature in the Midwest, and its housed at Chicago’s Carter G. Woodson Library.

"They chose February for the original Negro History Week because that was the birth month of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas," said Perri Irmer, President and CEO of DuSable Black History Museum. "So sometimes we wonder why it Black History Month in February. That’s really why for the tradition of celebrating those very important birthdays in Black history."

Then, fifty years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February Black History Month.

Additionally, if you didn’t know, the Wabash YMCA is now a registered historic landmark.