Black History Month and its roots in Bronzeville

Assistant Editor
Mon Feb 22, 2021

Black History Month is celebrated in the United States annually during the month of February. The Illinois Institute of Technology has the honor of being located in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, once known in the early 20th century as the “Black Metropolis.” Bronzeville’s unofficial borders extend roughly from 31st Street to Pershing, and from the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan, although this is debated. Within this area is the Black Metropolis historic district that includes nine buildings designated as Chicago Landmarks, including the Wabash Avenue Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) building. While no longer active, the building still stands due to restoration efforts by nearby churches in the community.

Founded between 1911 and 1914, the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Bronzeville was the only Y in Chicago that accepted Black residents. The building served as a social and cultural center for the area, providing resources for job training, education, and activities. At the Wabash Avenue YMCA, historian Carter G. Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 (now called The Association for the Study of African American Life and History) because he felt that African American history was being neglected and ignored by scholars at the time. Woodson founded the organization along with William D. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps, who were visiting Chicago for a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves.

Woodson, who also got his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1908, spent the majority of his life emphasizing the importance of teaching Black history. He believed that education would alleviate prejudice and also empower individuals. In February 1926, inspired by his experiences in Bronzeville and the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Woodson and the ASNLH founded “Negro History Week,” the precursor to Black History Month. He chose the second week of February to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Frederick Douglass’s birthday. The primary goal of this week was to promote the teaching of Black history in schools, with Woodson sending out “Negro History Week Circulars” to various educational institutions. Throughout the next several decades, the week grew in popularity.

In 1969, in part due to the civil rights movement, students at Kent State University expanded upon Woodson’s idea and came up with Black History Month, which they celebrated for the first time in February of the following year. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month six years later in 1976. The month has since spread to countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, although not necessarily in February.



Appears in
2021 - Spring - Issue 4