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Black History Month was always about Black history year-round

Today marks 205 years since the birth of Frederick Douglass, a Black man born enslaved who dedicated his life to eradicating slavery and fighting injustice. In the first few decades after emancipation, Douglass’ birthday, along with Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12, began to serve as an informal anniversary for Black Americans commemorating the end of slavery. Against this backdrop, the historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson began to promote the idea of formalizing a week in February to explore the rich history of Black Americans’ achievements and experiences.

Woodson and several colleagues founded what is today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915, just 50 years after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. It would take another six decades for Black History Month to achieve national recognition, but in the interim, traditions grew around February as a time to explore and celebrate Black history.

But despite initiating the idea of a designated time to honor Black history, Woodson always believed that studying the lives and works of Black people in America should not be limited to any one week or month, and the importance of that vision resonates more clearly today than ever. He hoped that by inaugurating Negro History Week in February 1926, he was building understanding and awareness that Black stories, lives and achievements must take their rightful place in American and human history.

Woodson wrote that, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” For too long, the erasure of Black history has denied to Black Americans what white Americans take for granted: the sense of identity and pride that comes from a shared understanding of the triumphs and tragedies that have brought us to the present day.

As a public university, dedicated to expanding knowledge, interrogating assumptions and exploring history with rigor and curiosity, we embrace the values that Woodson spent his life in service of, and we are committed to honoring those values in the classroom, on our campuses and in our communities throughout the year. In the current context, it’s more important than ever that education — at every level — reflect the fact that Black history is American history, just as Black scientists are part of scientific discovery, and Black artists and authors are part of our nation’s cultural achievements. Ensuring that this acknowledgement is reflected in the work of the academy, including in our curriculum, is a foundational component of our commitment to advancing racial equity and combatting systemic racism, and it is something our student and faculty leadership are working together on this year.

February is a moment to celebrate Black history, but not as something to be taken down from a high shelf, dusted off, admired and then put away. It is a time to refresh and renew our understanding of Black perspectives and voices as part of our shared history. By understanding that everyone has equal claim on history, we can work to create a present and a future also grounded in equity and inclusion. This is work I see everyday at the UW, which will continue as we pursue understanding and inspiration from the past.