The contributions, achievements and sacrifices of Black Americans throughout U.S. history are something to celebrate.
Our current monthlong celebration of that rich legacy has its roots in Negro History Week, which historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland, founders of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH), initiated in February of 1926. They chose the second week in February as a nod to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Over time the celebration evolved, with President Gerald Ford officially recognizing February as Black History Month in 1976.
Each year a theme is chosen for the month by the ASALH. This year, the theme is “Black Health and Wellness.”
During Black History Month there are many ways to pay homage and recognize triumphs while reflecting on what still needs to be done, says Rodney Coates, a professor at Miami University who teaches critical race theory and ethnic studies. Coates encourages people to recognize both national figures and local heroes who have made an impact within their communities.
But Coates says there is still room to do more. He wants Americans to truly embrace Black History Month the way many embrace other cultural holidays, such as St. Patrick’s Day.
“I think that part of the reason for celebrating this from the beginning, but even now, is to highlight this is not separate from the American experience,” he says.
Coates would like to see more national festivities and celebrations. “When we think about what is American, it is the blending of all of these rich cultures,” he says. “When we celebrate all of what we are, we are even greater than we are when we only celebrate small pieces.”
Here are some ways to observe and enjoy Black History Month.
Study Black history
Deepen your knowledge and understanding of Black history throughout the month by attending events and exhibits. Taking in special Black history offerings at museums, national parks and local venues is a wonderful way to explore solo, with grandchildren or with friends and family.
Online opportunities for learning abound. Start with a deep dive into the origins of Black History Month at History.com.
For events and opportunities throughout February, the National Park Service has created a virtual calendar that includes daily history lessons and ways to celebrate the 28 days of Black History Month. On day 10, for example, the calendar suggests learning more about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. by reading some of his most famous quotes or by listening to a park ranger share personal reflections after hearing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Many museums also offer digital tours of exhibits and art, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Searchable Museum, an interactive catalog of exhibits. One exhibition highlights the stories of African Americans who are not widely known, like James McCune Smith, the first Black physician in the U.S.
Online discussions and events mark the month, too. One worth adding to your calendar is the Smithsonian’s Feb. 2 online conversation with authors and historians Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain about their book, Four Hundred Souls. All month long the ASALH is hosting a variety of events, including a Feb. 19 virtual discussion with the organization’s president, W. Marvin Dulaney, and Black health professionals on a range of topics related to Black health and wellness.
Attend local and virtual events
Many cities and towns across the country host their own celebrations and events in honor of Black History Month. In Washington, D.C., the O Street Museum, located inside luxury boutique hotel The Mansion on O Street, regularly offers its Mrs. Rosa Parks Tour, where visitors can learn more about the woman who made history and, according to the museum’s website, lived at The Mansion for a decade.
In Brooklyn, New York, volunteers can participate in a cleanup service project on Feb. 5 at Herbert Von King Park. The event will also include educational information on Bedford-Stuyvesant icons Herbert Von King, an active community leader for more than 50 years, and Hattie Carthan, an environmentalist who advocated for protecting, preserving and planting trees in the neighborhood.
In Clarksburg, California, a Black History Month Art & Crafter’s Show is scheduled for Feb. 20 at the Old Sugar Mill, where visitors can enjoy live music, food truck treats, wine tasting and more.
If you’re interested in music, the Nyack, New York, public library will host an African drumming and dancing event on Feb. 23. Experts will lead participants in drumming exercises and choreographed routines. Space is limited, so advance registration is required.
Everyone can get into the groove with a series of virtual music-related events, including AARP’s free Heart & Soul Dance Party, featuring a DJ spinning soul and R&B tunes, as well as a performance from the Swayzees.
You can also tune in to AARP’s Black History Month virtual concert on Feb. 24, featuring R&B/gospel artist Howard Hewett. Or learn more about the musical history of Motown with an online lecture from Brandeis University professor Gil Harel.
How about a sweet treat? Those in Dallas, Texas, can roll up their sleeves for a hands-on experience with the Black Girl Magic cupcake decorating class on Feb. 16. Taught by Ginger Taylor, owner of The Cupcake Experience, the class will walk participants through the creation of six fondant cupcake designs and offer baking tips.
In Atlanta, Georgia, there will be free guided tours throughout the month at Historic Oakland Cemetery. The tours will focus on the lives of accomplished African Americans from the city, including John Tate, whose grocery store was the first Black-owned business in Atlanta, and Marie Woolfolk Taylor, one of the founders of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.
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Shop Black-owned businesses and support Black people
One of the best ways to make an impact during Black History Month is to support Black-owned businesses or donate to other efforts that support Black people.
The next time you consider making a purchase, research a Black-owned company that sells the product you want and buy from that shop. AARP’s Sisters newsletter, which celebrates Black women, has recommendations for Black-owned restaurants, bookstores and fashion brands, among other businesses.
When it comes to donating, Coates suggests directing funds toward organizations that assist older people of color or historically Black colleges and universities. “That will be the greatest acknowledgment of a people, by granting either our elders or our young people access,” he says.
Carlett Spike is a contributing writer who covers race issues, health and food. Her work has appeared on Shondaland and in Prevention and Columbia Journalism Review.