What is Black History Month – and How Do I Get Started? (2024)

Celebrated for Over a Century in the US – and Around the World

Black History Month (BHM) is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their important role in U.S. history.

The origins of BHM go back 1917 when Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African American leaders created and advocated for “Negro History Week.”

Every American president since Gerald Ford has designated the month of February as Black History Month in the U.S. Why is BHM in February? Originally, February was chosen because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in that month.

Today, many other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history. In the U.S., BHM usually has a theme.

Why Do We Celebrate Black History Month?

Some of the country’s largest and most profitable companies commemorate BHM – and have for many years. Some employers see Black History Month aspirationally, as a way to make the world a better place. Some see it practically, as a way to build a more empathetic – and effective – workforce.

And some see it as an opportunity – a way to translate the company’s values and policies into practice, visible actions that send a message to both internal and external audiences.

Getting Started: Send a Simple but Powerful Message

It’s one thing to say BHM is a good idea. It’s another to figure out what to do and how to do it. That’s particularly true for organizations that may feel like they don’t have the resources to plan an elaborate “celebration.”

The good news is that there are many ways to acknowledge the history and accomplishments of the Black Americans. So don’t get overwhelmed. The important thing is to make the effort – even if modest at first.

Share Black History Month Quotes

Sharing quotes from prominent Black American leaders via emails, social media, or on Black History Month posters around the office is a simple, but great way to show support. Why not create a Black History Month bulletin board to share Black History Month facts?

And remember, while we often think of leaders like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks when we think of inspirational leaders, Black Americans have participated in every aspect of American life. They have been teachers, scientists, military leaders, artists, actors and sports figures.

That gives you a lot of material to choose from – and the ability to tailor the message to your workplace.

Support Black-Owned Businesses

February is also a great time to support local African American businesses. Take the time to explore and take advantage of these businesses – including restaurants and caterers.

And don’t stop there. Encourage your employees to do the same by publicizing local African American businesses through internal communications and social media.

Bring in guest speakers

Why not organize a “lunch and learn” featuring local speakers who can talk about the contribution of African Americans to your business, community or the nation? It’s pretty easy to plan and a great way to learn. And sharing food is always a good way to build camaraderie on the team.

Encourage learning about Black History

There’s no better way to celebrate Black History Month than encouraging people to learn more about Black history, leaders and experiences. For those who want to learn but may not know where to start, why not share:

  • A recommended booklist on Black history or culture.
  • Links to a variety of Black social media creators to show the diversity and depth of the African American community – including business people, artists, bloggers, bakers, teachers or media figures.
  • A curated music list – created by and available on streaming services like Apple and Spotify.
  • A curated movie/media list – available on many of the most popular movie and streaming services.

Don’t forget traditional training and outreach

Part of the fun in celebrating BHM is thinking up interesting and innovative activities. But don’t forget about more traditional training opportunities too.

BHM is a great time to reinforce your message with full length trainings on diversity and inclusion – or with short form reminders that reinforce key messaging. Emtrain even has short training pieces specifically designed on BHM, and on this year’s theme, African Americans and the Arts.

And Emtrain’s training programs offer an added feature in Emtrain analytics. This allows our training to deliver your message to employees – while giving you access to real time data on employee sentiment and how your organization’s DEI strengths and challenges compare to others.

Getting It Right – Things to Consider

Make planning for Black History Month a part of your employee engagement plans

As with any employee initiative, planning matters when it comes to celebrating BHM. Planning ahead gives the space to engage your stakeholders and to be thoughtful and genuine in how you celebrate BHM.

And of course, if planning helps, lack of planning hurts. Waiting till the last minute or pushing through rushed or haphazard activities will undercut your intentions and send the message that the company is simply going through the motions. That may be worse than doing nothing at all.

So don’t get caught flat-footed. Make celebrating BHS a part of your annual planning for employee engagement, diversity, and inclusion. It’s an important and highly visible way to celebrate your people and organizational values. It deserves a spot on your agenda.

Remember that everyone can benefit from Black History Month

BHM is certainly about Black Americans and Black employees – but it’s a mistake to think of BHM as something that is just for them.

Empathy and understanding make each of us better people and create stronger organizations. And the best part is that, like any skills, empathy and understanding improve with practice.

So BHM activities give all employees the chance to learn history and practice skills that can be used as they engage with different groups and communities – inside and outside your organization.

Planning for BHM isn’t just the job of Black employees

To be successful, any inclusion outreach has to be an organization-wide effort. And that’s true for BHM, too.

So, by all means, engage with your Black employees and company resource groups for ideas on activities and to learn what they would consider meaningful ways to acknowledge Black history. But don’t make planning for BHM solely their responsibility.

Recognize that the Black Community speaks with many voices

The experience of being Black in America isn’t one-dimensional and there isn’t just one way to be a Black American. Some people identify as African Americans – some as Black Americans. And that’s not surprising. Some people are newly arrived from Africa, while others have long family histories in Latin American or the Caribbean. And some trace their family’s history from the Revolution, slavery or Jim Crow.
That makes it important to recognize and celebrate the varied heritage of Black Americans. It gives a truer picture of the Black experience and creates a richer tapestry to discuss and engage on.

Use BHM as an Anchor for Your Broader Commitment

When it comes to BHM, your first question is likely to be “how should we celebrate it?” Fair enough – and how you answer that question matters.\

But your second may be just as important – “how can we build on BHM?” To build empathy. To build inclusion. To put our organizational values into action.

The problem is that we too often see DEI initiatives as “events” – rather than processes that are thoughtfully implemented and sustained. So celebrate BHM and the innovative and important contributions Black Americans have made. And then use BHM as a reminder, an anchor and an inspiration to do more and to do it right.

Resources

Association for the Study of Black Life and History
The NAACP’s Black History Month Events
More on Carter Woodson
Apple’s BHM Offerings
Spotify’s BHM Offerings
Goodreads’ BHM Reading List
Parade’s BHM Quotes

What is Black History Month – and How Do I Get Started? (2024)
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