Group portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois and other defendants in Washington, D.C. during trial in 1951.

Origins of Black History Month

College of Humanities and Fine Arts Dean Barbara Krauthamer shares the origins of Black History Month in Massachusetts and the United States.

Black History Month offers the opportunity to learn about the rich history and culture of African Americans in Massachusetts, the United States, and our own campus.

Black History Month originated in the 1920s as part of Dr. Carter G. Woodson's efforts to expand knowledge and awareness of the history and achievements of Black people in America. In 1926, Woodson established Negro History Week in the month of February, as both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in the month, and African Americans already had established traditions of celebrating Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery and Douglass’ role as a prominent political writer and orator.

Frederick Douglass portrait taken in 1870
Frederick Douglass, 1870

Woodson’s initiative built on the tradition established in the 1890s by African American educator and women’s rights activist, Mary Church Terrell, of celebrating Douglass Day on February 14th.  By the mid-1970s, this tradition achieved national recognition as Black History Month.

African American history is also deeply embedded in the history of Massachusetts. In the seventeenth century, colonial settlers enslaved both Native American and African women and men, sometimes selling them to colonial plantations owners in the Caribbean.  The Massachusetts colony legalized slavery in 1641, and enslaved people of African descent lived and worked across the colony in many occupations, including agricultural laborers, dock hands, sailors, cooks, builders, and seamstresses.

Despite being legally defined as chattel, or property, enslaved people built meaningful family and community lives for themselves. UMass Amherst professor Gretchen Gerzina has written about the life of Lucy Terry Prince, who was enslaved as a child and later gained her freedom. She lived in Deerfield with her family and wrote about the Abenaki raid on that village. On the eve of the American Revolution, an enslaved, African-born girl named Phillis Wheatley gained international acclaim as a gifted poet. In the 1780s, Elizabeth Freeman was one of two enslaved people who insisted that the ideals of liberty and individual rights that had animated American revolutionaries should be extended to enslaved Black people. Between 1781 and 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the state’s constitution.

Sojourner Truth seated with photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell of Co. H, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, on her lap
Sojourner Truth, 1863

From the era of the Revolution until the Civil War, Black Americans in Massachusetts played leading roles in shaping the economic, social, and political issues of their times. Frederick Douglass escaped from enslavement in Maryland in 1838 and made his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he established himself as a prominent writer, orator and anti-slavery activist.Sojourner Truth gained her freedom from a New York enslaver in the 1820s and by 1843 settled in Northampton, Massachusetts. Boston is home to what is believed to be the oldest, standing Black church building in the country, the African Meeting House, which was constructed in 1806. It served as a house of worship and also provided a community meeting space and school for the city’s Black residents and children.  During the Civil War, Black men from Massachusetts, including Frederick Douglass' sons and Sojourner Truth’s grandson, enlisted in the Union Army and fight to end slavery, forming the all-Black Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments.

Born in Great Barrington in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois became a leading scholar and activist of the twentieth century. The first Black student to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, he, like his contemporary Carter G. Woodson, dedicated himself to documenting and elevating African American history and culture and combatting racism. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP and its journal, The Crisis. Now, UMass Amherst's W. E. B. Du Bois Library holds a vast archival collection of his correspondence, publications, photographs, and other historical documents.


Barbara Krauthamer

About Barbara Krauthamer

Professor Barbara Krauthamer is an eminent historian of slavery and emancipation in the 19th century American South, a devoted mentor, and an innovative leader. A member of the Department of History faculty since 2008, Barbara's published work includes Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South. She is the co-author of Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, which received a number of honors, most notably the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Non-fiction.