Black History Month: Origins, Timeline, and Key Figures


Charlotte Peterson

Black History display at Rolling Meadows High School

We have come to know the month of February as Black History Month. During which, we recognize the history and events of black people, as well as prominent black figures. We remember these people and events, but who are they, and what are they? What is Black History Month? Keep reading to learn more about the origins of the annual observance, key moments in Black history, and details about some prominent Black figures. 


Origins of Black History Month 


Black History Month was formally created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. It was originally called Negro History Week and was to be recognized the second week of February. Why February? Why the second week? Many Black people already celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th, and the birthday of Frederick Douglass on February 14th. Woodson decided the coinciding of the two provided a good week for the observance. Through the years, Black History continued to be taught and remembered mid-February, until the late 1960s, when Negro History Week fully developed into Black History Month. Now, we recognize the entire month of February.


A Timeline of Black History in America


16th and 17th centuries- Slavery in America began when captive Africans were brought overseas to America. It was estimated that between the 16th and 19th centuries, 12.5 million Africans were brought via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Those who survived were forced into slavery by white colonialists in the early days of the United States.


1776- By the American Revolution in 1776, some slaves were able to win their freedom. Many Black people fought in the revolution and were able to win their freedom doing such. 


The late 1700s- Throughout the late 18th century and 19th century, there was a growing discourse between the North and the South over slavery. While many Northern states voted to abolish it, the South was less inclined seeing as their entire economy was deeply rooted in slavery. 


The early 1800s- By the 1800s there was a growing number of free Black people, who began to form communities and find jobs, predominantly in urban areas. They also established Black churches.


The 1800s- Underground Railroad. Throughout the first half of the 1800s the Underground Railroad was established and in use. It was a network of escape routes and safehouses for enslaved African Americans. Harriet Tubman helped lead the railroad and freed many.


1831- Nat Turner’s rebellion. This was the most successful slave rebellion in the history of the U.S. Turner and a group of other slaves were able to rise up and kill their owners. In the end, they killed about 60 white people. Turner escaped but was eventually found and hanged.


1857- Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a slave whose owner took him from a slave state to live in a free state. Scott sued on the basis that he was a slave living in a free state. The court announced that Scott could not sue because he was not a citizen, he was property. 


1861- The American Civil War, which was fought between the North and the South, over the decision is slavery should continue in the new, western territory. 


1863- The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. It declared freedom for any enslaved person living in the Confederacy. 


1865- The North wins the Civil War and frees the entirety of the enslaved population. However, in an effort to control and restrict the newly freed black population, Southern states established Black Codes, harsh laws that restricted the rights of black people.


1865- The Klu Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group was formed. The group gained prominence in the early 1900s and continued terrorizing Black people throughout the century. 


1868- The Fourteenth Amendment was added to the constitution, granting citizenship and equal rights to African-Americans. 


1870- The Fifteenth Amendment was added to the constitution, giving African-American men the right to vote. At this time, Hiram Revels was elected to Congress, becoming the first African-American senator.


The late 1800s-  Jim Crow laws were put in place. They were laws that enforced racial segregation. 


1896- Plessy v. Ferguson. The verdict of this court case was that segregation was not unconstitutional, as long as both races were provided with equal facilities. This led to the doctrine of “separate but equal.” However, the black facilities were almost always much worse than their white counterparts.


1909- The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was founded. The purpose of the group was “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”


1910- Around this time, the Great Migration took place. Millions of African Americans migrated North to urban areas in attempts to escape the intense racial discrimination of the South.


The 1920s- The Harlem Renaissance. After many African Americans had settled in New York City, a cultural renaissance spread throughout the city. It included the development of Black music, art, literature, and more.


1940- Between 1940 and 1970 the Second Great Migration took place. Millions more African Americans migrated from the South to the North, Midwest, and West, to escape segregation and find better jobs and education.


1954- Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling on this case decided that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. 


1955- After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, the Montgomery bus boycott began. A year-long protest where African Americans refused to ride buses till they were desegregated. 


1960- Greensboro sit-ins, a series of protests in which African Americans gathered and sat at a segregated lunch counter. It inspired many more sit-ins in other places. 


1963- Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for an end to racism.


1964- President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into place. It officially outlawed discrimination based on race, as well as religion, sex, etc.


1965- African-American activist, Malcolm X, was assassinated in New York City. 


1965- Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. 


1968- African-American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. 


2008- Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, becoming the first black president.


2020- Following the murder of George Floyd, a series of Black Lives Matter protests sprung up across the country. They included both peaceful protests and riots, primarily against racist police brutality.


Prominent Black Figures


Martin Luther King Jr. was an African-American Baptist minister and a prominent activist who led the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, and was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, at only 39 years old. King believed in nonviolence and led peaceful protests for civil rights. His renowned “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 called for an end to segregation and racism. In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize.


Malcolm X was an African-American muslim minister, who like King, was a prominent leader of the civil rights movement. He believed in black empowerment. His ideas were less peaceful than King’s, promoting black self-defense. He strongly advocated for black power and racial pride. He was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, and was assassinated in 1965 in New York City. 


Rosa Parks was an African-American activist who changed history when she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. Her actions started the Montgomery bus boycott, a year-long protest against racial segregation. Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913 and died in 2005 at age 92 in Detroit, Michigan. 


Harriet Tubman was an important abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad. She was born a slave, but after escaping she went back to rescue as many other slaves as she could, about 70. She was also an activist for women’s suffrage. She was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, and died in 1913 in Auburn, New York. 


Frederick Douglass was another African-American abolitionist. He was an orator, writer, and statesman. He published three autobiographies. He was a former slave, who became a leader of the abolitionist movement. His powerful speeches and writings became famous and were important in the fight for antislavery. He was born in Cordova, Maryland in either 1817 or 1818 and died in 1895 in Washington D.C.


Sojourner Truth was another abolitionist as well as a women’s rights activist. She was born a slave but managed to escape. In 1851, she delivered her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” In the speech, she spoke on racial and gender inequalities. She was born in 1797 in Swartekill, New York, and died in 1883 at age 86 in Battle Creek, Michigan. 


Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American justice in the Supreme Court. He was also a lawyer and civil rights activist, and argued for the Brown v. Board case, successfully declaring racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional. He was born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, and died in 1993 at age 84 in Bethesda, Maryland.