Black History Month got its start in Virginia

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Black History Month was originally conceived in the fertile mind of a Black Virginian. Carl G. Woodson was born in 1875 in the community of New Canton in Buckingham County, about 50 miles northeast of Appomattox, where 10 years earlier Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army, effectively ending the Civil War.

His parents, who had been slaves until the end of the war, were illiterate and desperately poor, but they pushed Woodson to get an education. He did, at first self-educating himself and later attending a high school in West Virginia, where he moved at age 17 and worked in a coal mine. He became a teacher, a school principal and a scholar. In 1912, he became the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.

Woodson undertook the first serious study of the African diaspora, including the forced emigration of Blacks into slavery in the United States. Often called the father of Black history, Woodson took it upon himself in 1926 to declare the second week of February “Negro History Week.” He chose that bracket of dates because they included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and renown abolitionist Frederick Douglas.

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Woodson said of the study of Black history, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

The informal study of Black history continued during February until 1969 when Black educators and students at Kent State University proposed a monthlong celebration of Black history and heritage. Soon, Black history was being taught at numerous schools throughout the country.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

In our lifetime, the study of Black history and heritage has been dramatically enhanced by a general awakening of interest in the immense contribution Black Americans have made to our history. Even the scientific tracking of DNA, which has enabled people of all races the opportunity to discover far more about their family histories than was once possible, has increased our understanding of the brotherhood of man.

Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the television adaptation of that work gave many Americans their first objective view of the horrors of slavery and the struggle for freedom. Pioneers in entertainment from actress Cicely Tyson, who died just recently, to musicians like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and numerous others struggled to elevate the opportunities of Blacks throughout our society.

Political leaders such as recently deceased Congressman John Lewis forged the path in civil rights that enabled others, including past President Barack Obama, to rise to new heights in society.

Black History Month was designed to celebrate that struggle and to give young Black and white students the opportunity to learn from the all-too-often bitter lessons of history. There is much still to be learned from Black history, and it’s good that students are encouraged to pursue it a bit more passionately each February.

The Smithfield Times is sponsoring an essay competition this month open to all Isle of Wight and Surry high school students, whether enrolled in public or private schools or homeschooled. The topic chosen is “Fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream of Equality in 2021.”

More specific information about the competition can be found in this week’s Smithfield Times or on the paper’s website,


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is