How Black History Month got started and its NC origins

A statue of 19th century furniture maker Thomas Day stands outside the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

A statue of 19th century furniture maker Thomas Day stands outside the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

Black History Month began over 100 years ago with a weeklong celebration.

It was called “Negro History Week” then, coined by the late Black historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson. His work helped introduce Black accomplishments and history to the American public, shedding light on African American life in early America.

While Woodson wasn’t from North Carolina, he represented an educational “enlightenment period,” in which North Carolinians were learning for the very first time the many contributions Black people have made to the state and nation, said Earl L. Ijames, the NC Museum of History’s Curator of African American History.

“In 1910, 1920, it was against social customs to say something good of a Black person in North Carolina, and much less to highlight historical exploits. That wasn’t congruent of Jim Crow society,” Ijames said of the laws promoting segregation and racism in the American south.

“Dr. Woodson’s work offset and educated people to say yes, in fact, Black people, enslaved people, built the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the North Carolina State Capitol,” Ijames said.

Woodson’s book, The Mis-education of the Negro, helped uplift the spirits of Africans Americans and other people of color, teaching about the many contributions they’ve had on our society and country, Ijames said. The book is regarded today as a nonfiction classic.

When did Black History Month begin?

Woodson’s “Negro History Week” began in February 1926. This week was selected because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two prominent figures in Black American history, celebrated birthdays during this week.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week, encouraging Americans to “set aside a week to recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by our black citizens.”

The following year, the organization Woodson founded (which is known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH) expanded the week to a full month. Ford also issued a message on observing this month.

Congress passed a law designating February 1986 as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month,” noting Feb. 1 would mark the 60th annual “salute to Black History.”

Each president has issued a proclamation about Black History Month since, encouraging programming, ceremonies and activities.


Black history in North Carolina: Thomas Day

Ijames likes to highlight Thomas Day, a free person of color who lived during the 1800s and pioneered North Carolina’s furniture industry.

“As a historian, I like to point out people in history we don’t know about but should. We all know North Carolina is the furniture capital of the world, but we don’t know Thomas Day is known as the father of the furniture industry,” he said.

Day was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, but the Caswell County business and planter community invited him to open shop in Milton, North Carolina, during the 1820s. During the south’s Antebellum Era (1812-1861), he was one of the most famous craftsmen in the country.

In his shop, he employed white and Black (freed and enslaved) people as equals, Ijames said. He apprenticed them, and he and his employees have been credited for creating some of the finest southern architectural masterpieces.

In this time, Black professionals could not demand payment from white customers, so Day had many defaulters. Even with his fame and expertise, Day died in poverty in the late 1800s.

“History — not only oral history but material history, where we have documents and artifacts to know someone existed — can counter Jim Crow laws that were intended to cover up our Black brothers and sisters. That’s one of the reasons why Black History Month exists,” Ijames said.

“Not to the exclusion of anything else, but the month grew out of the Black exclusion of Americana in American history.”

The North Carolina Museum of History has the largest Thomas Day collection in the world, Ijames said. Materials in this collection were formerly featured in the Smithsonian. A Thomas Day exhibit and program is being planned in Winston-Salem next month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the town’s Delta Fine Arts Center, Ijames said.

For videos and educational resources about Black history and leaders in North Carolina, visit

Black History Month’s 2023 theme: Black Resistance

Black History Month’s 2023 theme is Black Resistance. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History names a theme for Black History Month each year.

“African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms and police killings since our arrival upon these shores,” the website reads.

“These efforts have been to advocate for a dignified self-determined life in a just democratic society in the United States and beyond the United States political jurisdiction.”

For more information about ASALH or this year’s theme, visit

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.

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