Black History Month: What is it and why does it matter?

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A general view of work by artist Collins Obijiaku on display during the The Medium Is The Message exhibition at Unit London GalleryImage source, Getty Images

October marks Black History Month in the UK. The event was officially recognised by the US government in 1976, and first celebrated in the UK in 1987.

Why is Black History Month necessary?

People from African and Caribbean backgrounds have been a fundamental part of British history for centuries. However, campaigners believe their value and contribution to society is often overlooked, ignored or distorted.

Most schools still teach a history curriculum which focuses on traditional events and the achievements of white figures. Black History Month gives everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black heritage and culture.

More recently, greater attention has been paid to the importance of the Windrush generation and the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Where did Black History Month originate?

Image source, Alamy

Known as the "Father of Black History", Carter G Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875 and was the son of former slaves. Growing up, access to a good education and job opportunities were limited, but he ended up studying at one of the few high schools for black students after saving money from working as a coal miner.

Over the years he gained an impressive number of qualifications, including a PhD in history from Harvard University. In 1926 he sent out a press release to mark the first Black History Week in the US. Throughout his life, Carter G Woodson worked tirelessly to promote black history in schools, leaving an indelible legacy.

The event was expanded in 1970, and since 1976 every US president has officially designated February as Black History Month in the US.

February was chosen in the US because it coincides with the births of former President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass - who escaped slavery and became a key social activist. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Nurse Mary Seacole is commemorated with a statue outside St Thomas' Hospital in London

How is Black History Month celebrated?

The event is intended to recognise the contribution and achievements of those with African or Caribbean heritage. It's also an opportunity for people to learn more about the effects of racism and how to challenge negative stereotypes.

When Black History Month first started in the UK, there was a big focus on black American history. Over time there has been more attention on black British history and key black figures from the UK, such as:

  • Walter Tull, the first black officer to command white troops in the British Army and one of English football's first black players
  • Malorie Blackman, a bestselling author and the first black Children's Laureate
  • Olive Morris, a social activist who co-founded groups such as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and the Brixton Black Women's Group
  • Dr Shirley Thompson, the first woman in Europe to conduct and compose a symphony within the last 40 years
  • Lewis Hamilton, one of the most high profile competitors in Formula One and the only black driver

Black History Month is also celebrated in the community in places such as museums, care homes and workplaces. A broad range of topics is covered, from Britain's colonial past to migration and music.

Government funding is available to local organisations to help mark Black History Month in their area. Some of the UK's leading organisations include The Windrush Foundation, National Archives and 100 Great Black Britons.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Black Lives Matter protesters in London's Hyde Park

Is black history taught in schools?

Education is a devolved issue in the UK, so there are marked differences in the curriculum in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Over the years there have been growing calls from campaigners for black history to be included in the curriculum in England - and not just celebrated in October.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Decades after the Windrush brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain in the 1950s, the government had to apologise for deportation threats made to the children of Commonwealth citizens

The Department for Education says black history is an important topic and schools have the freedom to teach it within the history curriculum, and can do so from primary school age onwards.