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18 Facts You Didn’t Know About Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, here are some facts about Black history in America that even history buffs may not know.

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Black History Month

The United States has observed Black History Month in February as a month-long celebration honoring the contributions made by Black Americans in our country. How well do you know this annual event? Here are some facts even history buffs may have missed. This is why Black History Month shouldn’t just be a single month.

Historian Carter G. WoodsonBettmann/Getty Images

The man with the plan

Historian Carter G. Woodson, the creator of what we presently know as Black History Month, worked passionately to establish the event in an effort to provide an education on the origins, struggles, and achievements of African-Americans in United States history. Originally, it existed as seven days of commemoration, first established in 1926 and called “Negro History Week.” Woodson penned more than a dozen books, including 1933’s Mis-Education of the Negro. Learn the truth about some historical figures you’ve been picturing all wrong.

Kent State Shootings DemonstrationSpencer Grant/Getty Images

It’s been nationally recognized since 1976

Despite its forerunner, Negro History Week, originating all the way back in 1926, Black History Month as we know it today didn’t become nationally recognized until the 1970s. Black students and educators at Kent State first celebrated Black History Month in January and February of 1970. Other educational institutions started following suit, and for the United States’ bicentennial, President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, as has every president since. Learn about some Black inventors you didn’t study in history class.

HistoryUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

This year marks an anniversary

On February 12, 2021, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) will celebrate its 112th birthday. The date of February 12, 1909, was chosen for the NAACP’s inception because it also marked the 100th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, and coincided with abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’s birthday (February 14). It’s America’s oldest civil rights organization, as well as its largest. This is why Black History Month is more important than ever.

Marshals Museum, Fort Smith, USAJeannie Nuss/AP/Shutterstock

Black men had a strong presence in the Wild West

You’d be hard-pressed to find much diversity in old-time Western films; however, according to Smithsonian Magazine, one in four cowboys was Black. In fact, it’s believed that the fictional character of The Lone Ranger was based on was Bass Reeves. Reeves was born into slavery but he fled westward during the Civil War. In time, Reeves became a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Find out some more legendary figures you never knew were inspired by real historical people.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination coincided with an icon’s birthday

It was on Maya Angelou’s birthday, April 4, 1968, that her friend, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. After this heinous act, Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday. However, she sent flowers to King’s wife Coretta Scott King on that date until Mrs. King passed in 2006. Check out these 14 rarely seen photos of Dr. King.

Film and TelevisionMoviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer

She may have been drawn as an old Hollywood pinup girl, but cartoon Betty Boop was actually based on Esther Jones, a Harlem-based jazz singer. Jones was known for her use of “boops” in her singing as well as what was called a child-like scat, similar to that of her illustrated counterpart. Find out more examples of whitewashing you never thought about.

1960s Nurse Adjusting... H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The practice of vaccination in America has fascinating roots

An enslaved person by the name of Onesimus, brought to the Massachusetts colony, told church minister Cotton Mather about the way inoculations were practiced in Africa for centuries to prevent people from getting sick. Mather took this information to Dr. Zabdiel Boylston when smallpox became a severe issue in Boston in 1721, reports PBS. Boylston inoculated 240 people, despite a large opposition to the practice. Find out the history lessons your teacher lied to you about.

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By the numbers

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Black population in the United States includes 48.2 million people; this is either alone or in combination with one or more races. A 2019 report asserts that there are 2.1 million Black military veterans across the United States. In 2018, the bureau counted 124,004 Black-owned businesses nationwide. Of course, Black-owned businesses have suffered massively during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how you can support Black-owned businesses.

Olympic Medalists Giving Black Power SignBettmann/Getty Images

Civil rights solidarity in sports has deep roots

Many years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, two other athletes sent a powerful message about their unity with Black America. During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, competitors Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black gloves and gave a salute during the anthem. Read about more American history facts you never learned in school.

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Various people walk past. Black History Month banner on front of Nottingham City Council House. In Nottingham, England. On 22nd October 2016.Jason Batterham/Shutterstock

Black History Month is celebrated differently around the world

In the United States and Canada, we celebrate Black history in February. However, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands, they honor it during the month of October. In 2014, Ireland became only the fourth country in the world to celebrate Black History Month. Find out more facts about Black History Month you didn’t learn in school.

Vermont State House capital building is located in Montpelier, VT, USA and is a public structure owned by the people of Vermont.Steven Frame/Shutterstock

The first state to abolish slavery might surprise you

Considering Abraham Lincoln hailed from Illinois and was the president who would eventually abolish slavery, you might expect that the first state to do away with the practice was his Midwestern state of origin. However, it was Vermont that led the way in 1777. Here are famous historical moments that didn’t actually happen.

Dolemite Is My Name! LA AMPAS Hosted TastemakerArnold Turner/Getty Images

The Grammy-nominated music man

Quincy Jones hits the history books as the most nominated artist in Grammy history. He has scored a total of 79 nominations and 27 awards. Not surprisingly, he was presented with the Grammy Legend Award back in 1992. Jones is also one of the founders of the Institute for Black American Music. Here are 35 more Black Americans you didn’t learn about in history class.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Washington, USAJames Palmer/AP/Shutterstock

The first African-American woman was elected to the House of Representatives in 1968

Paving the way for women of color in Congress (and the White House) was Shirley Chisolm, who represented New York in the House of Representatives. Just four years after she entered the House, in 1972, she became the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination in the race for President of the United States. Don’t miss these 58 other famous, inspiring female firsts.

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Interracial marriage was banned in the U.S. until 1967

Way back in 1664, marriage between races was banned in the United States; this law was first enacted in the colony of Maryland, with others quickly following suit. It might seem unbelievable in our modern-day society that this took more than 300 years to overturn—but less unbelievable when you understand the full depth of institutional racism and what it means.

Jackie Robinson Swinging BatBettmann/Getty Images

Jackie Robinson broke baseball barriers in 1947

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his first game as one of the Brooklyn Dodgers. During his first season in the major leagues, he led the National League with the most stolen bases and then was honored as Rookie of the Year. Despite his talent and skill, Robinson faced adversity from fans and colleagues; he later became an outspoken member of the civil rights movement for Black equality. Learn how you can support the Black Lives Matter movement and become anti-racist.

Civil Rights TrailblazerThe Washington Post/Getty Images

Claudette Colvin pre-dated Rosa Parks in refusing to give up her seat on public transportation

Before there was Rosa Parks fighting for desegregation on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, there was Claudette Colvin. At just 15 years old, she stayed seated and refused to move to the back of the bus. According to PBS, Colvin had previously learned about the plight of Harriet Tubman and other early activists. It’s believed she said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” Find out more “facts” about the Civil Rights movement that just aren’t true.

Woman going through a temperature check before going to work in officeLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid racial inequalities bare

The Black community—and communities of color in general—have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, exposing people across the United States and the world to the truth about fundamental inequalities in this country. While COVID was initially called a “great equalizer” that came for anyone and everyone, science showed that this was not the case and that racial minorities were being hit harder. A June 2020 study found that while non-Hispanic Black people make up 12 percent of America’s population, they accounted for 34 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Black Americans were also at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, due to factors like their increased likelihood to work in higher-risk jobs, live in more crowded housing, and higher unemployment rates. Learn more about how racism plays a role in COVID-19 disparities.

Mrs. Charlotta Bass Seated And PointingBettmann/Getty Images
A major glass ceiling and racial milestone was broken in November 2020 when Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, was elected as America’s first Black vice president (as well as the first woman and South Asian American to hold the role!). She was not the first Black woman to run for that office, though. In 1948, a journalist named Charlotta Bass became the vice presidential nominee of the Progressive Party, with Vincent Hallinan as her running mate. She was also from Harris’s home state of California! Next, find out some of the best ways to celebrate Black History Month.

Charlotta Bass paved the way for Kamala Harris

Sources:

  • History: “Black History Facts”
  • History: “Black History Month”
  • BBC News: “Black History Month: What is it and why does it matter?”
  • History: “NAACP”
  • Smithsonian Magazine: “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys”
  • Biography: “Little Known Facts About Black History”
  • PBS: “Ten Little Known Black History Facts”
  • United States Census Bureau: “National African American (Black) History Month: February 2021”
  • CDC: “COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities”
  • The Conversation: “Before Kamala Harris, many Black women aimed for the White House”