Black History Month is an essential observance for people all over the world to celebrate and learn about the rich history and culture of Black people and their contribution to the progression and improvement of society. It’s a time to honor the many accomplishments of Black people throughout history and recognize the challenges they’ve faced and overcome on the continuing journey to racial equality.
The celebration of Black History Month has its roots in the early 20th century when Black scholars and activists began to focus on preserving and promoting Black people’s history, stories, writings, and art. In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the creation of Negro History Week, which coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The goal of this week was to encourage the study of Black history in schools and universities — a mission that continues to this day!
Over time, the celebration of Negro History Week grew in popularity, and in the 1970s, Gerald Ford’s government expanded it to become Black History Month. Today, countries worldwide celebrate Black History Month!
The theme for Black History Month 2024 is “African Americans and the Arts,” decided by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). To learn more about this year’s theme, head to the annual themes page of the ASALH website, where it’s explained in detail.
Black people have significantly contributed to every aspect of our world, including science and technology, art and literature, and law and politics. By learning about these contributions, we can gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the diversity and complexity of our world and work towards building a more inclusive and equitable society.
An excellent way to dive into Black history is to learn about important figures from history who were Black. Here are ten figures who made a significant impact on the world around them:
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who played a crucial role in the American civil rights movement. He’s best known for advancing civil rights using nonviolent protests based on his Christian beliefs. Have a read of our blog for MLK Day to find out more!
- Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was a Black American civil rights activist best known for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In December 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, an act of civil disobedience that played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement.
- Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was a Black American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping slavery, he became an abolitionist movement leader, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. His memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is one of the most important works in American history.
- Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) was a Black American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made over a dozen missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
- Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) was a Black American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in New York but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
- Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first Black head of state and the first elected in a fully democratic election.
- Malcolm X (1925–1965) was a Black American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who spoke out against white America for its crimes against Black Americans.
- Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She’s best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her personal experiences and growth during some of the most tumultuous times in American history, including the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War.
- Barack Obama (1961–) is an American politician who served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. He was the first African American to hold office and the first president born outside the contiguous United States.
- Oprah Winfrey (1954–) is an American media executive, actress, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was ranked the highest-rated television program of its kind in history. Winfrey is also the founder of the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Exploring these figures and their legacy is a great way to begin lessons on Black history in the history classroom. You could get your students to create biographies for other remarkable Black historical figures, plot influential events or individuals on a timeline, or show the contributions of Black people across disciplines with an educational poster.
Black History Month is so much more than a learning opportunity for the history classroom. Integrating Black history into other subject areas is an excellent way to showcase Black people’s impact in various fields. Here are five ideas for five different subjects:
- English: Read and analyze literature by Black American authors, such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. Reading stories that center around the Black American experience will promote understanding and empathy in students and open their eyes to the barriers that Black people have faced and continue to face.
- Social Studies: Create a map or a graphic organizer showing the locations and movements of key figures in Black American history, such as the Underground Railroad or the Great Migration.
- Science: Learn about the contributions of African American scientists, such as Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
- Economics: Research the economic impact of segregation and discrimination on African Americans, and consider ways to address these issues in the present day.
- Art: Get creative with art projects inspired by Black American visual art forms, including pottery, metalwork, sculpture, architecture, textile art, and fiber art. Explore the art of famous Black American visual artists, including Laura Wheeler Waring, Loïs Mailou Jones, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
- Music: Listen to, analyze, and emulate the music of some of the great Black American musicians, including Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Sharp, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Lady Bo, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, and Mahalia Jackson.
Black history is an integral part of global history and must be studied, celebrated, and honored. Although progress has been made, people around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the need to engage with and appreciate Black history equally to that of White, eurocentric history. Black History Month is the perfect time for you to do your bit toward reaching this goal.