A Guide to Black History Month

(Cw: Discussion of racism, inequality, race riots, and hate crimes targeted toward black and brown people)

What is Black History Month?

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the struggles and successes of the African Diaspora (1) throughout our nation’s history. It is a time to recognize and celebrate Black contributions to our society and to acknowledge the ongoing fight for equality.

Black History Month offers us an opportunity to learn about Black History and the various achievements made in many areas of society. This time of celebration is significant for African American children, who can learn about the varied accomplishments of their communities and be proud of their heritage. This month is also an important reminder that our nation still has work to do to ensure that African Americans are treated equally and given the same opportunities as other citizens. We must continue to strive for greater racial equity and justice in our society.

Black History Month first came into observance in America in 1976, and every American president thereafter has named the month of February Black History Month. That would officially make this year the 47th American Black History Month.

The Black History Month 2023 theme, “Black Resistance,” explores how “African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching (2), racial pogroms (3), and police killings,” since the nation’s earliest days.  

Important Organizations


 You may notice that above it says officially that this year is the 47th year of observance of Black History Month. However, Black History Month had been in the works much earlier than in 1976. In September of 1915, Harvard graduate and historian Carter G. Woodson and prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization to research and promote the achievements of African Americans and other people of African descent. While the group is known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), back in 1926 the ASNLH sponsored a ‘national negro history week’, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. This inspired schools, organizations, and communities nationwide to host lectures and celebrations throughout February. (https://asalh.org/)


In 1908, the city of Springfield, Illinois, was rocked by a deadly race riot (4). While eruptions of anti-black violence (particularly lynching) were horrifically common, this riot was the tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP. Appalled at the violence, a group of white liberals (including Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both the descendants of famous abolitionists) issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial injustice. About 60 people answered and signed this call, ( seven of whom were African Americans,  including W. E. B Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terell) which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. 

The NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Founded on February 12th, 1909, it is the oldest, largest, and most widely recognized grassroots-based (5) civil rights organization in the United States. The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination. (https://naacp.org/) (https://naacpgr.com/

According to the NAACP, the reason why their name has not been updated to replace “people of color” rather than “colored people” is for two main reasons. First, it is included in the NAACP constitution that its name shall be the NAACP, to change the name would be to go against the constitution. Second, the name serves as a reminder that, while our problems’ names may have changed, the problems themselves have not. 

National Urban League

The Black Cabinet, also known as the Federal Council of Negro Affairs or the Black Brain Trust, was a group of African Americans who served as public policy advisors to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945. Despite its name, it was not an official organization.

Though the council was formed with civil rights in mind, FDR believed there were bigger problems to be addressed during the wartime years (1939–1945). Along with this, FDR was also struggling to maintain the support of the Southern (white) Congressional Democrats. Due to this, FDR declined to support legislation that would make lynching a federal offense and ban poll taxes (6).

The Black Cabinet, with the First Lady’s support, worked to ensure that African Americans received 10 percent of all welfare funds (proportional to the 10% African Americans made up of the US population). They argued that Black Citizens were underrepresented among the recipients of the aid from the New Deal (7), largely due to Southern Democrats influencing the structure and implementation to benefit their white constituents (members). 

Mary McLeod Bethune served as an informal organizer for the council, and Rayford Whittingham Logan drafted FDR’s executive order prohibiting the exclusion of African Americans from the military.

Black Cabinet/Black Brain Trust

The Black Cabinet, or Federal Council of Negro Affairs or Black Brain Trust, was the informal term for a group of African Americans who served as public policy advisors to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in his terms in office from 1933 to 1945. Despite its name, it was not an official organization.

Though the council was formed with civil rights in mind, FDR believed there were bigger problems to be addressed during the wartime years  (WWII 1939-1945). Along with this, FDR was also struggling to maintain the support of the Southern white Congressional Democrats. Due to this, FDR declined his support for legislation that would make lynching a federal offense and ban poll taxes(6).

The Black Cabinet, with the First Lady’s support, worked to ensure that African Americans received 10 percent of all welfare funds (proportional to the 10% African Americans made up of the US population). They argued that Black Citizens were underrepresented among the recipients of the aid from the New Deal (7), largely due to Southern Democrats influencing the structure and implementation to benefit their white constituents (members). 

Mary McLeod Bethune served as an informal organizer to the council and Rayford Whittingham Logan drafted FDR’s-executive order prohibiting the exclusions of African Americans from the military. 

Lesser-known Figures

In elementary school, you most likely learned about figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. Hopefully, you were paying attention, as this guide will not cover them. Here, you will find less popular but just as important figures from Black History. 

Shirley Chisholm: Chisholm became the first black woman elected to congress and represented New York’s 12th district from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her slogan was that she was “unbought and unbossed.” Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to Chisholm by using a similar logo to hers in her 2020 presidential campaign announcement.

Claudette Colvin: Claudette Colvin was Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks was Rosa Parks if that makes sense. At just 15 years old, Colvin refused to move from her seat in the middle of the bus in March of 1955. She was the first woman to be detained in resistance to moving on a bus. Her story is not as well known as Rosa Parks since Claudette did not meet the “requirements” as a face for the movement. She had dark skin and kinky hair and was a pregnant teenager. Leaders of movements tend to want to keep up appearances and present only “the best ” images of protestors. Just as black and brown women were often excluded by many suffragettes, many civil rights leaders did not want to make Colvin’s story well known.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Crumpler was the first black female physician. She earned her credentials at the New England Female Medical College in 1864 (one year before the Civil War). She spent her career focusing on aiding women, children, and people of color who were unable to pay medical expenses. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, which is believed to be the first medical text written by a black American author.

Mary McLeod Bethune: As mentioned above, Bethune worked with the Black Cabinet. What was not mentioned was that both of her parents were slaves. Though she was born in 1875, she still grew up picking cotton alongside her family. Eventually, she would go to boarding school to become a teacher and open a boarding school of her own in Florida. In addition to her work with the black cabinet, she was the Director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration under FDR and the NAACP’s Vice President.

Albert Murray: Albert Murray is considered to be one of the most important black thinkers of the 20th century. He was an essayist and social critic that challenged black separatism (8) and insisted that the Black experience was central to the American experience, thus changing how many considered and talked about race in the United States. He wrote, “The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” and, “Any fool can see that white people are not really white and that black people are not black.” He did not use terms like “white” or “black” and considered himself and everyone else to be simply Americans.

Marsha P. Johnson: when the police raided the New York gay bar known as the Stonewall Inn in 1969, Marsha was among the first to resist. The following year, she marched in the city’s first gay pride demonstration. Marsha struggled with acceptance from both the black and LGBTQ communities due to being transgender, which was not widely accepted in the gay community during this time. She was known to wear flowers in her hair and tell people who asked questions about her gender that the P in her name stood for “pay it no mind.” Due to her activism, she became something of a celebrity among “outcasts” and artists within lower Manhattan and would go on to open a shelter for LGBTQ youth. In 1992, her body was found floating in the Hudson River. The case, which was originally dubbed a suicide, was later reopened and remains open to this day.

Jane Bolin: Jane Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. She would go on to become the first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the first black female judge in the US. She was known to be extremely compassionate, and as a family court judge, she would refrain from wearing judicial robes to make children more comfortable. She committed herself to ensuring equal treatment for all who appeared in her courtroom, regardless of economic or ethnic background.

Fannie Lou Harme: The majority of civil rights leaders were black male preachers from big churches with impressive degrees. Harme, however, was poor and uneducated and showed that you didn’t have to be “important” to inspire others. She was recruited by activists in the 1960s during voter registration drives due to her powerful speaking and singing voice. Harme was fired from her job in response to her registering to vote. She was beaten, arrested, and received death threats for her work. Seasoned civil rights workers were impressed by her efforts, and she would co-found a new political party in Mississippi in an attempt to desegregate the state’s democratic party. When she spoke in 1964 at the Democratic convention about the brutal conditions faced by black voters at the polls, she was considered to be so charismatic and riveting that President Lyndon B. Johnson called a last-minute press conference to force networks to break away. He was afraid that she would “alienate” southern Democrats from supporting segregation.

Important Vocab

  1. African Diaspora: The term “African Diaspora” refers to the mass dispersion of people from Africa during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which lasted from the 1500s to the 1800s. This diaspora took millions of people from Western and Central Africa to different regions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The African diaspora is the worldwide collection of communities descended from native Africans or people from Africa, predominantly in the Americas.
  1. Lynching: Lynching was the widespread occurrence of extrajudicial killings that began in the pre-Civil War south and allegedly ended during the civil rights movement (despite this, Ahmad Aubrey, in 2020, is widely known to be the most recent act of lynching, with many more local and suppressed incidents believed to still be occurring). Although anyone could be lynched, after the emancipation of slaves in the South, white southerners primarily targeted black people. Lynching reached its peak in the US from the 1890s through the 1920s and primarily victimized black and brown people. Most lynchings occurred in the south due to its having the majority of the black population; however, racially motivated lynchings occurred in the midwest and border states.

Lynchings followed the African American population with the Great Migration (1916–1970) and were typically practiced to enforce white supremacy and intimidate ethnic minorities. A significant number of victims were accused of murder, attempted murder, rape, and attempted rape. These accusations often served as a pretext for lynching black people accused of violating Jim Crow-era etiquette and competing economically with whites. Lynchings are stereotypically seen as hangings due to the public visibility of these acts and locations. Many of these hanging lynchings were professionally photographed and often sold as postcards, which became popular souvenirs in the US. Lynching victims were killed in a variety of other ways, including but not limited to: being shot, burned alive, thrown off a bridge, and dragged behind a car. Lynching was also not always fatal. People accused of concealing information were put through mock lynchings, which often involved putting a rope around someone’s neck to compel them to “confess.” Lynch mobs varied in size from a few people to thousands. According to (white) historian Michael J. Pfeifer, the Lynchings reflected people’s lack of trust in the “due process” of the American judicial system.

  1. Pogrom: A pogrom is a violent riot incited to massacre or expel an ethnic or religious group.
  1. Springfield Race Riot: The Springfield race riot of 1908 consisted of events of mass racial violence committed against African Americans by a mob of about 5,000 white Americans and European immigrants in Springfield, Illinois, between August 14 and 16, 1908. Two black men had been arrested as suspects in a rape, an attempted rape, and a murder. The alleged victims were two young white women and the father of one of them. When a mob seeking to lynch the men discovered the sheriff had transferred them out of the city, the whites furiously spread out to attack black neighborhoods, murder black citizens on the streets, and destroy black businesses and homes. The state militia was called out to quell the rioting. The riot, trials, and aftermath are said to be one of the most well-documented examples of the complex intersection of race, class, and criminal justice in the United States.

In 2008, an NPR report on the centenary of the race riot said that the fact that it took place in a northern state, specifically in “The Land of Lincoln,”  demonstrated that black people were mistreated across the country, not just in the South, and described the event as a proxy for the story of race in America. At least sixteen people died as a result of the riot: nine black residents, seven white residents who were associated with the mob, five of whom were killed by black residents, and two committed suicide. It was misreported for decades that only the militia was responsible for white deaths and that more whites than black people had died. Personal and property damages, suffered overwhelmingly by black people, amounted to more than $150,000 (approximately $4 million in 2018 USD), as dozens of black homes and businesses were destroyed, as well as three white-owned businesses of suspected black sympathizers. 

As a result of the rioting, thousands of black people left Springfield, but it is unclear how many moved away permanently. Although over 100 riot-related indictments were issued in the months that followed, and some pleaded to minor violations, only one alleged rioter went to trial and was convicted of lesser offenses. Of the two accused black men, who were the initial focus of the lynch mob, one was eventually tried, convicted, and hanged; the other was set free. Near the 100th anniversary in 2008, the City of Springfield erected historical markers and a memorial statue. The riot was a catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organized to work on civil rights for African Americans.

  1. Grassroots Organization: A grassroots movement uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action at the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international levels.
  1. Poll tax: A poll tax is a fixed sum imposed on every individual without reference to their income or resources. Poll taxes are typically associated with the former Confederate states, but they were also in place in some northern and western states. Things such as voter registration and the issuance of driving and hunting licenses were dependent on whether an individual paid their poll taxes. Some states imposed the tax as part of Jim Crow laws. In response to the enactment of the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to all races, many other states adopted the poll tax to restrict voting rights. Poll tax laws often included a grandfather clause stating that any adult male whose father or grandfather voted in a specific year before the abolishment of slavery could vote without paying the tax. Poll taxes, along with unfairly implemented literacy tests and extra-legal intimidation, like from the Ku Klux Klan, achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and poor white voters as well, but disproportionately were aimed toward African American voters.
  1. The New Deal: The New Deal was a series of public works, financial reforms, programs, and regulations enacted under FDR between 1933 and 1939. The New Deal places safeguards and restraints on the banking industry and attempts to re-inflate the economy. The New Deal prioritized the three Rs. Relief for the unemployed, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent repeat depressions.
  1. Black Separatism: the belief (within the black community) that black people would be better off separated from white people, in a similar vein to “separate but equal,” black separatists believed that the black community would be better off creating its own separate economic, social, and cultural spaces.

Colored/African-American/Black/Negro: While terms like “negro” and “colored” are only used with historical references due to their obvious roots in white supremacy and oppression, within this article (and in many other places)  the terms “African-American and “Black” are used interchangeably. This is due to the opinion within the black community that these titles are generational. Most young adults today would simply consider themselves black. Citing that they are disconnected from African culture and genome due to the transatlantic slave trade, labeling recent African immigrants and Black Americans as the same is incorrect due to cultural differences. Older generations would argue that as we are all descended from the same place (Africa), being labeled African-American just makes sense. This is a common discussion within the African Diaspora that has no right or wrong answer.


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