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Robert McNamara

Black History Month

By February 4, 2013

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Commemorations of black history began in the 1920s, when the African American historian Carter G. Woodson began promoting the week of February 7, 1926, as Black History Week. He chose that particular week as it would include the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, as an adult, marked his birthday as February 14. But he did not know his actual date of birth. As he wrote in his autobiography in 1845:

I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.

After escaping from slavery, Douglass became one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. And to mark the achievements of Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and many others, the tradition of Black History Week continued through the decades.

In 1976, during bicentennial observances of the United States, it was expanded to become Black History Month. President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation making the observance official, and that tradition has been followed by all subsequent presidents.

Illustration: Frederick Douglass/Library of Congress

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