Black History Month began in the summer of 1915 when Carter G. Woodson traveled to Chicago from Washington D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the emancipation. Exhibits highlighting the progress of African Americans since the destruction of slavery brought thousands to Illinois from across the country. Woodson, who earned a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1912, had a display along with many other exhibitors. The celebration was held for three weeks in the Coliseum to overflow crowds of six to twelve thousand people.

On September 9th, Woodson met with A.L. Jackson and others at the Wabash YMCA and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He established The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and urged black civic organizations to promote the achievements of African Americans. He told an audience of Hampton Institute students, "We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements."

Woodson sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February of 1926. He chose February for reasons of tradition, to build the celebration around a pre-existing observance to bolster his chances for success. Since the late 1890’s the black communities around the country had celebrated Frederick Douglass' birthday on the 14th and Lincoln’s on the 12th. But Woodson envisioned much more than remembering two men who played a prominent role in shaping black history. He believed the black community should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.