Black History Month (BHM) is a month dedicated to discussing and learning about Black people. It is set in February. Black History Month is in appreciation of Black culture and arts. There is also an emphasis on history, especially local Black history. The month seeks to highlight Black people’s historical contributions to society.
Black History Month originated in 1926 as Negro History Week. It was observed the second week of February. It aimed to increase everyone’s knowledge of Black history. Negro History Week was the brainchild of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian of African Americans. Woodson chose February because it was the birth month of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.)
Negro History Week caught on within Black communities in America. (See also Black Canadians.) Politicians, especially those representing Black constituents, gradually began to issue proclamations officially declaring Negro History Week. In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month. In 1977, Congress declared Black History Month a national observance.
Canada’s Early Observances
Annual Black history commemorations soon spread to Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa and Canada. Most credit Black sleeping car porters for bringing it to Canada. Porters who crossed the Canada-US border quickly learned of the significance of Negro History Week in the United States.
Negro History Week continued despite the Great Depression and its devastating effects on Black communities. In February 1937, the Sunday School at Bethel AME mission in Winnipeg held a program to honour “Negro History and Education Week.” It included speeches about the origins of the “Black race” and biographies of distinguished figures. A poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar was also read. The following year, the Negro History Bulletin reported that the Women’s Progressive Club in Edmonton wished “to observe Negro History Week through interracial groups.” That same year, the Harriet Tubman Club in Niagara Falls sponsored a speaker in honour of Negro History Week. In February 1939, the Negro Historical Society of the Home Service Association commemorated Negro History Week with a series of presentations at Toronto’s First Baptist Church. (See Baptists in Canada.)
After the Second World War, Negro History Week celebrations continued. Stanley G. Grizzle organized Negro History Week as an eight-day symposium. It was held at Christ Church in Toronto on 13 February 1950. On 15 March 1958, Kay Livingstone, former president of the Canadian Negro Women’s Club, organized its first annual banquet in Toronto. The event sought to expand Black consciousness in Canada.
In the 1970s, the term “Negro” slowly fell out of use. Instead, Black History Week became the norm. The practice spread and became an expected event every year.
In 1979, two founders of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, petitioned Toronto to recognize February as Black History Month. In 1979, under Mayor John Sewell, Toronto became Canada’s first municipality to designate February as Black History Month. In 1981, Mayor Mel Lastman of North York followed suit. These more informal recognitions were not officialized as a formal municipal observance, however. Activists had to frequently pressure mayors to recognize BHM. In the early 1990s, new OBHS president Rosemary Sadlier organized a petition to institutionalize Black History Month as an official event in Toronto. Despite persistent efforts, Toronto has yet to do so.
Rosemary Sadlier’s efforts at the provincial level were more successful. Ontario proclaimed Black History Month for the first time in 1993 and every year thereafter. Then in 2009, the province introduced Bill 207: An Act to name February in each year Black History Month. The bill would have institutionalized Black History Month as a standard practice in Ontario. However, the bill stalled in committee. Instead, years of annual proclamations followed. Finally, on 29 January 2016, the province announced it would seek “to formally recognize” February as Black History Month. On 16 February 2016, Bill 159: An Act to proclaim the month of February as Black History Month received royal assent. Ontario became the third Canadian province to pass Black History Month legislation.
From the 1960s until the 1980s, the Negro Community Centre (NCC) held Black History Week events for its members. By the late 1980s, events took place throughout the month of February. During the 1980s, Black student groups at McGill and Concordia universities sponsored month-long events. These sought to educate people on the significance of February Black History Month.
These initial celebrations were largely limited to the English-speaking communities. (See Anglophone.) In 1990, a coalition of ethnic minorities and Black community groups (see also Visible Minority) pressured the Quebec Human Rights Commission to endorse Black History Month. The commission was also the first to provide funding for Black History Month in Quebec. The coalition also lobbied the city of Montreal. In February 1991, Montreal mayor Jean Doré committed to have the city declare February as Black History Month. Almost a year later, on 28 January 1992, city council declared February as Black History Month in Montreal. That same year, the Roundtable for Black History Month was established to organize and coordinate Montreal’s February activities.
By the mid-1990s, local Black organizations were staging their own Black History Month activities in Quebec City. In 2000, a Black History Month exhibition opened at the Bibliothèque Gabrielle Roy. The following year, Mayor Jean-Paul L’Allier committed support and resources for Quebec City’s BHM events.
In 2005, Yolande James, Quebec’s first Black female MNA, was tasked to deliver a report on racism in Quebec. Yolande James’s final report, the Task Force Report on the Full Participation of Black Communities in Québec Society, recommended that the National Assembly recognize February as Black History Month.
On 23 November 2006, the National Assembly adopted Bill 39. The law made February Black History Month to “underline the black communities’ contribution to Quebec society.” It came into effect 1 February 2007.
Interest in Negro History Week grew after the Second World War. On 28 February 1947, Carrie Best’s newspaper, The Clarion, published an article about Negro History Week events in Boston, US. The headline stated: “Negro History Week Observed in United States Canada Next?”
In the early 1980s, the Black History Month Committee, a loose coalition of groups, began to organize February activities in local communities. They eventually combined their efforts in the Halifax-Dartmouth region. In 1985, the first official Black History Month opened with an exhibition and activities at Halifax’s North Branch Library. The committee grew in membership and was eventually renamed the February Black History Month Organizing Committee. It continued to raise awareness province-wide. The committee also popularized the annual Black History Month Celebrity Quiz between the mayors of Halifax and Dartmouth. Then in 1991, Rosemary Brown helped to spotlight the month with a rally in Halifax. Around the same time, the Black History Month Association (BHMA) was formed and pressed for BHM institutional recognition. Finally, on 26 January 1996, Premier John Savage declared February as African Heritage Month to promote the history, culture and accomplishments of Africans worldwide. With increased funding, the BHMA evolved into a part of the African Heritage Month Information Network (AHMIN). The organization became responsible for February’s theme and promotion across Nova Scotia.
As early as 1937, the Bethel AME mission in Winnipeg held a program to honour “Negro History and Education Week. Elsewhere, small communities throughout Manitoba celebrated Black History Week locally. They did so without formal recognition or any central planning. In 1981, the Black History Month Celebration Committee (BHMCC) hosted Winnipeg’s inaugural Black History Month event — a service at Pilgrim Baptist Church and an awards banquet. (See Baptists in Canada.) By 1983, the BHMCC had become the established organization for BHM activities and today works to foster awareness of Black history throughout the province.
After 1995, Saskatchewan’s small local BHM activities began to build momentum. Eventually, in 2001, lobbying led to the founding of the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum (SACHM). The museum seeks to spotlight the province’s Black history. As of 2006, the SACHM took the lead in coordinating BHM themes and events. In 2021, Saskatchewan proclaimed February as African-Canadian/Black History Month to recognize and honour “the legacy of people of African descent across the nation.” (See Black Canadians.)
In 1987, the National Black Coalition of Canada, Edmonton Chapter, began organizing the first province-wide Black History Month events. MLA David Shepherd led the legislative battle On 31 January 2017, Premier Rachel Notley announced that Alberta officially recognized February as Black History Month for the first time. Alberta’s cities followed suit. On 1 February 2021, Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson, and Cathy Heron, mayor of St. Albert, made formal proclamations acknowledging their cities’ Black History Month. That same year, Ubuntu - Mobilizing Central Alberta coordinated Black History Month events for the first time.
By the early 1990s, the Victoria Black Peoples Society (VBPS) was hosting Black History Month events. The VBPS was replaced when, in June 1993, dozens of Black Canadians responded to the Royal BC Museum (see Art Galleries and Museums) request for support to mount BHM events in February 1994. The success of the Black History Special Event Advisory Committee became the impetus for a permanent organization. On 18 March 1994, The BC Black History Awareness Society was formed in Victoria.
In Vancouver, the National Black Coalition of Canada began organizing Black History Month events in 1985. These events grew into a popular annual event. Over two decades later, the Vancouver City Council passed a motion on 15 February 2011. The motion designated Black History Month as one of the city’s official celebrations.
Rosemary Sadlier urged the federal government to recognize Black History Month. MP Jean Augustine introduced a motion in the House of Commons on 14 December 1995. It aimed to note “the diversity of the Black community in Canada and its importance in the history of this country, and recognize February as Black History Month.” The House of Commons adopted the motion unanimously. It went into effect 1 February 1996. For the first time, Black History Month was officially observed nationwide.
For over a decade, the House awaited Senate approval. On 13 February 2008, Nova Scotia Senator Donald Oliver introduced a motion to have the Senate officially declare February as Black History Month. It received unanimous approval on 4 March 2008. Black History Month had gained permanent recognition in Canada.