Celebrating Black History Month

Information, Resources and Online Activities

Martin Luther King Memorial
Walter Bibikow/Photolibrary/Getty Images

While the accomplishments of African-Americans should be celebrated all year long, February is the month when we focus on their contributions to American society.

Why We Celebrate Black History Month

The roots of Black History month can be traced to the early part of the 20th century. In 1925, Carter G. Woodson, an educator and historian, began campaigning among schools, journals and black newspapers calling for a Negro History Week to be celebrated. This would honor the importance of black achievement and contribution in the United States. He was able to institute this Negro History Week in 1926 during the second week of February. This time was chosen because Abraham Lincoln's and Frederick Douglass' birthdays occurred then. Woodson was awarded the Springarn Medal from the NAACP for his accomplishment. In 1976, Negro History Week turned into Black History Month which we celebrate today.

African Origins

It is important for students not only to understand recent history concerning African-Americans, but also to understand their past. Before Great Britain made it illegal for the colonists to be involved in the slave trade, between 600,000 and 650,000 Africans were forcibly brought to America. They were transported across the Atlantic and sold into forced labor for the rest of their lives, leaving family and home behind. As teachers, we should not only teach about the horrors of slavery, but also about the African origin of the African-Americans who live in America today.

Slavery has existed throughout the world since ancient times. However, one big difference between slavery in many cultures and the slavery that was experienced in America was that while slaves in other cultures could gain freedom and become part of society, African-Americans did not have that luxury. Because almost all of the Africans on American soil were slaves, it was extremely hard for any black person who had gained freedom to be accepted into society. Even after slavery was abolished following the Civil War, black Americans had a difficult time of being accepted into society. Here are some resources to use with students:

Civil Rights Movement

The barriers facing African-Americans after the Civil War were numerous, especially in the South. Jim Crow Laws such as Literacy Tests and Grandfather Clauses kept them from voting in many southern states. Further, the Supreme Court ruled that separate was equal and therefore blacks could legally be forced to ride in separate rail cars and attend different schools than whites. It was impossible for blacks to achieve equality in this atmosphere, especially in the South. Eventually, the hardships that African-Americans faced became overwhelming and led to the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the efforts of individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., racism still exists today in America. As teachers, we need to fight against this with the best tool we have, education. We can enhance students' views of African-Americans by stressing the numerous contributions they have given to American society.

Contributions of African-Americans

African-Americans have affected the culture and history of the United States in innumerable ways. We can teach our students about these contributions in many areas including:

  • Music - e.g., Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues
  • Art - e.g., Sargent Johnson, Palmer Hayden, Aaron Douglass
  • Literature - e.g., Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright
  • Science - e.g., George Washington Carver, Granville T. Woods, Garrett Morgan

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's is ripe for exploration. Students could create a "museum" of the accomplishments to increase awareness for the rest of the school and community.

Online Activites

One way to get your students interested in learning more about African-Americans, their history and culture is to utilize the many great online activities that are available. You can find web quests, online field trips, interactive quizzes and more here. Check out Integrating Technology Into the Classroom to get tips on how to get the most out of technology today.