The Birthplace of Black History Month is on Chicago’s South Side

    Carter G. Woodson's Black History initiatives started on the South Side of Chicago in 1915.

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    Hipnola Stesy

    Since 1976, every U.S. president has acknowledged February as Black History Month.

    On Tuesday, January 31, President Joe Biden issued his proclamation on Black History Month 2023, noting that “Black Americans have made a way not only for themselves but also have helped build a highway for millions of women, immigrants, other historically marginalized communities, and all Americans to more fully experience the benefits of our society.”

    Beginning of Black History Month

    The story of Black History Month begins on the South Side of Chicago.

    During the summer of 1915, Carter G. Woodson traveled to Chicago from Washington, D.C. to participate and present at the 50th anniversary of emancipation (Lincoln Jubilee).

    Also called the National Half Century Anniversary Exposition, this event took place from August 22-September 16, 1915 and was sponsored by the state of Illinois. It was held at the Coliseum, located at Wabash Avenue near 15th street on the near south side of Chicago.

    According to House Bill No. 919, the Illinois Commission appropriated $25,000 to organize and bring in nearly a quarter of a million visitors to Chicago for the celebration.

    Fraternal Press

    The Lincoln Jubilee was created to highlight the progress of African Americans since the end of slavery. But the process of planning the event shed light on a bigger problem: there wasn’t any significant research available that outlined the history and advancement of African Americans post slavery.

    As the second African American (after W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, Woodson had the opportunity to join other event exhibitors with a black history display.

    But Woodson wasn’t a stranger to Chicago. In 1908, he graduated from the University of Chicago with bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in European History before obtaining his PhD at Harvard University in 1912.  

    When Woodson returned to Chicago to celebrate the progress people had made since the end of slavery, he stopped by the Negro Fellowship League (NFL) where he delivered a “literary and historical treat,” The Broad Ax wrote on August 14, 1915. The NFL, one of the first Black settlement houses in Chicago, was located on the city’s South Side and founded by Ida B. Wells in 1908.

    The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History Was Born

    Woodson’s experiences in Chicago inspired him to take action.

    On September 9, 1915, he met with other leaders (including Alexander L. Jackson, co-founder of the Chicago Urban League) at the old Wabash YMCA located at 3757 S. Wabash Ave on the South Side of Chicago. That’s when the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (currently known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) was born. A month later, the association was incorporated in Washington, D.C., where it is headquartered today.

    The ASALH is dedicated to the scientific study of black life and history. According to the website, the ASALH is on a mission to “create and disseminate knowledge about Black History, to be, in short, the nexus between the Ivory Tower and the global public. We labor in the service of Blacks and all humanity.”

    The ASALH continues the legacy of Carter G. Woodson by “speaking a fundamental truth to the world–that Africans and peoples of African descent are makers of history.”

    In January 1916, Woodson created a platform to showcase his work. He published the first issue of The Journal of Negro History, which later became The Journal of African American History.

    According to the University of Chicago Press Journals, The Journal of Negro History was the first piece of original scholarly content to cover African-American life and history. It remains a leading scholarly publication for research and content about the African-American experience.

    “The aim of this generation should be to collect the records of the Negro and treat them scientifically in order that the race may not become a negligible factor in the thought of the world.”

    – Carter G. Woodson, 1939

    Welcome Negro History Week

    Woodon wanted to do more to normalize the study of Black history. Although he encouraged Black civic organizations to promote the achievements that researchers were uncovering, he knew that wouldn’t be enough to create a lasting impact.

    On February 7, 1926, Woodson launched the celebration of “Negro History Week.”

    Fifty years later, the celebration was expanded to a month. The 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford, issued a message calling for the observance of Black History Month to recognize the contributions black Americans made to national life and culture. He urged citizens of the United States to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

    Since February 1976, each American president has issued Black History Month proclamations. And the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)—continues to celebrate Black History Month with an annual theme. This year’s theme is Black Resistance, which explores the history of “Black Americans’ responses to establish safe spaces, where Black life can be sustained, fortified, and respected.” Institutions all over the world, such as the Library of Congress and The National Museum of African American History and Culture, are including this theme into their Black History Month commemorations.

    Keeping the Mission Alive

    Please help us continue Woodson’s legacy by supporting Chicago Southsider. Woodson said, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” Let’s keep Black History Alive!

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