February is National Black History Month in both the United States and Canada. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland honor and celebrate the contributions of Black people in October.
How Did Black History Month Start?
In 1926, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), founded by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, and scholar and Jesse E. Moorland, a prominent minister, set out to commemorate and celebrate the contributions of African Americans by designating the second week of February as Negro History Week. Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASLAH), the organization chose the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass and the sixteenth United States president and champion of the 13th amendment which ended slavery, Abraham Lincoln.
Black History Week was expanded to a full month in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, who charged every citizen to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” While February is designated as Black History Month (also known as African American History Month), a special month to honor and celebrate the achievements of African Americans, it is imperative that the voices, faces, and rich contributions of African American people are integrated throughout the year, not just in February.
To support all students in learning about and commemorating African Americans all year, incorporate African American history, people and culture into existing thematic units and explore and learn about the many contributions African Americans have made to make the world a better place. Here are some ideas to help you facilitate learning about and celebrating African Americans not only during Black History Month, but throughout the entire year.
Incorporate African American History, People, and Culture into Existing Thematic Units
African American culture and history are incredibly rich. As you plan your thematic units, be sure to acknowledge, incorporate and celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans. Embedding African American history, people, and culture throughout the year benefit all children. It allows African American children to see successful and influential people who look like them, which helps them develop positive identities and opportunities to make better connections with texts. Culturally relevant books and texts help all children learn to appreciate the rich and diverse world around them and allow them to see the ways in which culturally diverse people have contributed and continue to positively contribute to our country and the world. To highlight and celebrate Black History Month all year long, consider adding the following activities to your in-person or virtual classroom.
- Review your unit and lesson plans for each subject and highlight African Americans who have contributed to a particular topic. For example, if you are planning a science lesson about space. Be sure to include information about Guion Blueford, Jr., the first African American male astronaut to travel to space, or Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut to travel into space, or any of these African American NASA astronauts. If you are discussing STEM careers, consider reading about any of these African American technology professionals. For social-emotional learning, there are several children’s books about African Americans that reinforce important character and social-emotional skills. Try some of these books where African Americans are the lead character. For more ideas, check out these historic events about African Americans.
- Build culturally diverse school and classroom libraries. Be sure to include books and poetry written and illustrated by African Americans as well as books that highlight African American people, places, and culture. Far too often, African American people are not highlighted positively in the media or are often left out of history books altogether. It is important that ALL students see and read about the accomplishments and triumphs of African Americans throughout the school year. To find culturally diverse books, consider Lee & Low, the largest publisher of multicultural books, check out the books in the Dutchess Harris Collection to add to your library, or read this list of ten African American books. For children who love graphic novels, try any of these graphic novels written and illustrated by African American authors and artists.
- Visit African American museums and exhibits either in-person or virtually to learn more about African American art and culture. Consider visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s virtual exhibits, exploring, The Museum of African American Art’s online exhibit, attending virtual events, or watching the storytime videos at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Explore and Learn About African American Achievements and Contributions
The accomplishments and contributions African Americans have made in the United States and around the world are endless. African Americans have made a difference in every facet of life including math, science, art, education, medicine, theater, law, politics, engineering, technology, culinary arts, athletics, music, and more. Be sure to seamlessly incorporate African American heroes and sheroes throughout the year so that all children can learn about the significant contributions African Americans have made. Consider including the below activities in your lesson plans:
- Honor an African American at the beginning and end of each day during Black History Month and throughout the year. Be sure to highlight diverse African Americans who are doctors, attorneys, engineers, scientists, athletes, civil rights activists, authors, inventors, etc.
- Highlight and commemorate African American heroes and sheroes from the past and present by assigning a historical or current African American to each student and have them present to the class. Consider some of these African American heroes and sheroes.
- Be sure to include posters, artwork, and photography that positively depict African Americans within your classroom and throughout the hallways and other common areas within your school. Consider these posters with African American quotes.
- Leverage technology to invite family members, artists, and local African American heroes and sheroes to share their accomplishments and culture.
- Expose children to documentaries, plays, movies, cartoons, and short films to learn about African American history and culture. Allowing students the opportunity to see, hear and experience important moments in history helps them to understand that African American history IS American history.
Let’s Celebrate African American History!
African American History is our history. Be sure to take time to celebrate African Americans during the month of February—but don't stop there. Revise and revamp your lessons to make sure they are culturally diverse and inclusive. When you do, all children win!