From its origins in 1926 to today, Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate Black excellence. What began as one week nearly a century ago evolved into an entire month to recognize the contributions of Black people in art, music, science, history, politics, and culture.
Black History is not a subset of United States history anymore than Black people are a subculture of America. The contributions and experience of Black people are central and foundational to the narrative of U.S. history and American heritage. While February is a month set aside for special tribute, we encourage you to elevate Black excellence throughout the year. Here is a guide to recognizing and celebrating Black History Month at work.
“Studying history will sometimes DISTURB you. Studying history will sometimes UPSET you. Studying history will sometimes make you FURIOUS. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.”- @AfricanArchives on Twitter.
Why is Black History Month important?
Black History Month is important because Black history is U.S. history.
Around the world, there are entrenched habits of minimizing Black presence and Black experiences. Minoritization is a process in which a person or group is “made subordinate in status to a more dominant group or its members.” Why is it that European history is a core curriculum in the U.S. while Black history is an elective? How many European scientists, explorers, artists, and political figures can you name? Now, how many Black scientists did you learn about in school?
Primary curriculum and discourse in the U.S. has long minimized Black contributions to science, art, history, culture, and politics. To truly understand why Black History Month is important, let’s dig deeper into why it began.
Before Black History Month
The school curriculum of the early 20th century in the U.S. often ignored, misrepresented, degraded, and dehumanized Black people. For example, a 1934 history textbook portrayed Black people as being happy as enslaved people:
They liked to “sing, dance, crack jokes, and laugh; admired bright colors, never in a hurry, and [were] always ready to let things go until the morrow.”
This is the education curriculum for a society that elevates white culture and actively demeans Black people. It was not until the 1960s that U.S. textbooks began to remove explicitly racist text entries like the one above.
When did Black History Month start?
Black History Month’s roots can be traced back to 1915 when Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), dedicated to promoting the achievements of Black people.
Later, in 1926, Woodson created “Negro History Week” which encouraged and inspired local schools and communities to organize plays, pageants, speeches, essay contests, concerts, and other festivities. Making this event an education curriculum was the work of countless Black teachers, most of whom were women. These women helped shape the celebration through their efforts in the classroom.
The event quickly gained popularity. Soon, mayors across America were issuing proclamations recognizing Negro History Week. By the 1960s, bolstered by the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the event evolved into Black History Month. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a national celebration.
A call to action and an indictment
Black History Month was initially a reaction to the dehumanizing discourse of the early 20th century. Now, Black History Month is both:
- A call to action to preserve and present information on Black History
- An indictment of school curriculum and society for the minimization of Black contributions
We’re not done yet
Research from the South Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that American schools are not teaching the “hard history” of slavery. Black History Month remains relevant today, particularly amid movements for social justice that demand historical context — a history that we’re still failing to teach in the U.S. public education system and beyond.
When is Black History Month?
In the U.S., Black History Month is celebrated annually for the entire month of February. February was chosen to align with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln — two central figures in the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Black history is also celebrated in other countries around the world:
- Brazil: November 20 is Dia da Consciência Negra (Black Consciousness Day).
- Canada: February. Beginning in 1979 in Toronto and adopted nationally in 1995 thanks to Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament.
- The UK: October, since 1976.
- The Netherlands: October, since 2015.
- Germany: February, since 1990.
How can you celebrate Black History Month at work?
Black History Month at work is a time to celebrate unsung African and African American history, but also to focus on lifting up Black colleagues and leadership. The purpose of learning history is to learn from the past and make progress, after all.
Start by ensuring you’ve created ample, supported space for Black voices at your company — then, listen. With input from Jice Johnson, Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of The Black Business Initiative, along with 60+ company leaders, PowerToFly hosted an off-the-record conversation about how to create environments where Black employees can shine. In our Amplifying Black Excellence report we discuss why it’s so important to celebrate and normalize Black excellence, achievement, humanity, and joy.
During Black History Month this year, take the time to acknowledge and celebrate Black communities and individuals. Whether virtual or in-person, here are some ideas for different ways you can celebrate Black History Month at work.
1. Education sessions
It shouldn’t need to be said, but Black history in the U.S. is not wholly encompassed by a traumatic history of Euro-American human trafficking and enslavement. We learn about slavery and the underground railroad in the classroom. Now is the time to get into topics that educate about lesser-known African and African American people, events, and culture.
The following subjects lend themselves well to virtual presentations or in-person meetings. Focus on art, culture, science, and politics. Here are some topics that uplift Black excellence, to get you started.
- African architecture, pre-colonial and highlighted by region
- Interactive U.S. map featuring inspirational Black individuals from each state (shared on TikTok)
- Hidden Figures, a movie Black women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program
- Basquiat, a movie about Jean Michel Basquiat, a world-renowned New York street artist who experienced both fame and struggles in his short life
- Black Panther Breakfast Program, the history of the free breakfast program that put political pressure on the government and public education system in the U.S. in 1969
- More movies to watch for Black History Month, compiled by Essence
2. Decor ideas
In some industries, especially if your work takes place in classrooms, you have the opportunity to decorate your workplace for each holiday. During Black History Month, consider choosing a Black artist and decorate with themes, colors, and pieces that represent their work. A fantastic example is this hall and doorway decorated in the style of contemporary artist Nina Chanel Abney.
3. Donate to causes that support Black communities
Want to make an impact this Black History Month? Push for actionable progress in your community and around the country. Donate to Black-led causes that fit your organizational vision. This means organizations that uplift Black-led activities, but also those that fight against issues predominantly faced by Black people. Run a fund-matching campaign where your company pledges to match every donated dollar that employees put forth during the month.
The social justice platform PB Resources recommends the following three organizations, among others:
- Equal Justice Fund: A nonprofit that works with Black communities marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment, especially in the justice system.
- Algorithmic Justice League: An organization dedicated to mitigating AI harms and biases by educating researchers, policy makers, and industry practitioners on equitable and accountable AI. Note: This organization directly deals with DEIB-related hiring practices.
- NAACP: The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), founded in 1909, is the largest and most pre-eminent civil rights organization in the U.S.They raise awareness, organize, and fund Black causes in all areas of society. The Legal Defense Fund is a project of the NAACP.
Find 50 more organizations supporting everything from Black women’s mental health and Black trans lives to housing equity for Black families here.
Things to avoid
Don’t ask your Black employees to do extra (unpaid) work. That means no assigning presentations, panel discussions, or tasks.
Consider this tweet where @candiceiloh justifiably asks: “At the absolute LEAST, you can refrain from requesting FREE work from Black folks that you’re trying to include in your #BlackHistoryMonth programming, right?”
So, how do you seek support for your Black History Month programming? Two simple actions. Ask for participation. Then, if accepted, acknowledge your employees’ expertise and pay extra for those hours spent on DEIB-related projects.
Black History Month resources
Unsure where to find resources besides scrolling Wikipedia? Here are some books, movies, podcasts, and other resources to educate yourself and your colleagues about unsung heroes and events in Black history. Some resources also include instructions for concrete actions to take this month. Remember to buy books online from a Black-owned bookstore this (and every) month.
- DONATE: Black History.Fund, 30 days of Black-led, Black-serving causes to donate to, including a widget for daily calendar reminders. Intro on TikTok.
- BOOK: The Destruction of Black Civilization, described by @36nyne as “basically our African history book.” Teaching Africa as the birthplace of civilization and Black Africans as the first builders, through to the real effects of exploiting and discrimination.
- BOOK: An African American and Latinx History of the United States, a geopolitical narrative of history demonstrating how the "Global South" was crucial to the development of the U.S. as we know it.
- MOVIE: Good Hair, a documentary by Chris Rock about African-American hairstyles and exploring hairstyle discrimination in U.S. professional settings and beyond.
- SOCIAL MEDIA: PB Resources, shareable graphics of Black icons. Intro on TikTok.
- SOCIAL MEDIA: @African Archives on Twitter, daily tweets about African & Black history.
- SOCIAL MEDIA: Odunife History on Instagram, presenting African & Black history and culture to challenge Western neoliberal teachings.
Black history is U.S. history.
The important thing to remember during Black History Month at the office is that Black history is all of our history. Black individuals that we celebrate today have showed excellence in the face of real adversity and discrimination. In the workplace, recognizing and celebrating Black causes and individuals is the best way to create better dynamics in our society. For more on how to recognize Black individuals at work, download our report on dismantling the barriers facing Black women in leadership today, and attend our upcoming Diversity Reboot summit on Amplifying Black Excellence.