National African American History Month had its origins in 1915 when historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. This organization is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (“ASALH”). Through this organization Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson selected the week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the history of African Americans.
In 1975, President Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to "recognize the important contribution made to our nation's life and culture by black citizens." In 1976 this commemoration of black history in the United States was expanded by ASALH to Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, and President Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month that year. In subsequent years, Presidents Carter and Reagan continued to issue Messages honoring African American History Month.
In 1986 Congress passed Public Law 99-244 (PDF, 142KB) which designated February 1986 as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” This law noted that February 1, 1986 would “mark the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History.” The law further called upon to President to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe February 1986 as Black History Month with the appropriate ceremonies and activities. President Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 5443 which proclaimed that “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.” This proclamation stated further that this month was a time “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion."
In January 1996, President Clinton issued Presidential Proclamation 6863 for “National African American History Month." The proclamation emphasized the theme for that year, the achievements of black women from Sojourner Truth to Mary McLeod Bethune and Toni Morrison. In February 1996 the Senate passed Senate Resolution 229 commemorating Black History Month and the contributions of African American U.S. Senators.
Since 1996, Presidents have issued annual proclamations for National African American History Month. On February 1, 2011 President Obama issued a Proclamation reflecting on this year’s theme of “African Americans and the Civil War” as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War.