Celebrating Black History Month: Legal History, Research Resources, and Community Events

In celebration of Black History Month, Zief Library Assistant Randall Seder takes a look at the social and legal history of the commemorative month, highlights Zief research resources, and presents some Bay-Area events of interest.

“Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. / [WKL].” Original black and white negative by Warren K. Leffler. Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003654393/


(Left) Photograph of Dr. Carter Woodson Public Domain, 1910. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
(Right) Lincoln Jubilee Choir, Chorus of 650 Voices. Lincoln Jubilee Album 50th Anniversary of Our Emancipation. Compiled by Lincoln Jubilee Photographer John H. Ballard. 1915.

Congress legally adopted Black History Month after passing Public Law 99-244 in 1886, but the true beginning of this annual month-long celebration of African American accomplishment, contribution, sacrifice, and culture began 70 years earlier with the work of the Virginia-born Black historian, author, and scholar Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson. 

In 1915, Dr. Woodson traveled from his home in Washington, DC. to attend the National Half Century Exposition and Lincoln Jubilee in Chicago. This event celebrated the 50th anniversary of emancipation. The summer-long Jubilee drew thousands of attendees and featured exhibits of heritage and culture such as art, music, written works, and speeches by notable figures across all fields of study. It was during this trip that Woodson recognized the importance of protecting, promoting, and studying Black history. That Fall, Dr. Woodson founded the organization now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), whose primary focus advocated for the widespread education of Black history and heritage in American schools. 

In 1926, Woodson chose a week in February for celebrating Black history. He chose February because it corresponded with the birth dates of two prominent political advocates fighting for Black freedom, autonomy, and independence, Abraham Lincoln (February 12th, 1809) and Frederick Douglass (unrecorded, but later celebrated February 14th, 1818).

Schools around the country quickly adopted Woodson’s initiative. The ASALH created dozens of branches around the country to bolster support. By the 1940s, efforts focused on creating a larger public celebration of African American heritage, which continued after Woodson’s death in 1950.  

Legislative change came with President Gerald Ford’s 1975 “Message on the Observance of Black History Week,” which shed light on Black achievements “long…obscured and unsung.” A year later, the ASALH lengthened the week-long observance to Black History Month, which President Ford publicly recognized in his Message on the Observance of Black History Month (February 1976). In this address, President Ford recognized not only Dr. Woodson’s initial efforts to implement Black history into school curricula, but also Black history’s contribution to national identity, achievement, and culture. Ford ends the address, “I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.” 

Congress passed Public Law 99-244 in 1986, designating February as National Black History Month and directing the president to issue a proclamation each year calling the nation to observe this celebration. President Ronald Reagan was the first to issue a proclamation recognizing the month-long observance. His speech called 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 introduced the first presidential theme for Black History Month in Presidential Proclamation 6863, “The Achievements of Black Women.” President Clinton’s address honors notable figures such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Toni Morrison. 

In addition to presidential proclamations, Congress has honored Black History Month by passing resolutions. This began in 1996, when Senate Resolution 229 credited the contributions of Black American U.S. Senators. 

Today, Black History Month continues to recognize Black Americans’ immeasurable contributions to our nation’s history, from scientific discovery and invention to jazz, blues, Black literature, poetry, and cuisine. Along with celebration and commemoration, Black History Month also serves as a dire call for national, systemic self-reflection. In his 2016 Presidential Proclamation on National Black History Month, President Barack Obama marked the 40th anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s 1976 Message on the Observance of Black History Month. In his speech, President Obama addressed the ongoing struggle for Black Americans to secure birthright freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Our responsibility as citizens is to address the inequalities and injustices that linger,” said President Obama, “and we must secure our birthright freedoms for all people.”

This year, Zief honors the 2023 theme, “Black Resistance,” and all individuals working to prevent the systemic erasure of Black history. In academic environments, Black history erasure occurs through curriculum restrictions, book bans, and a lack of faculty representation. In 2022 alone, the United States banned over 300 books by predominantly Black authors discussing race, gender, and sexuality. In line with Dr. Woodson’s original intent to promote Black history visibility in academic environments, the Zief Law Library recognizes the importance of providing relevant, inclusive, and accessible legal resources that reflect Black history, narratives, thoughts, and experiences. 

For a more detailed legal history of Black History Month, explore the Library of Congress timeline, which spans from the laws of the antebellum south to contemporary court rulings.


Five Books From Zief’s Collection: (from left to right) Civil Rights In American Law, History, and Politics
by Austin Sarat; The Rule of Law In The United States: An Unfinished Project of Black Liberation by Paul Gowder; Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and The Styling of Black Diasporic Identity by Monica L. Miller;  Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America by Mary Frances Berry; Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle For Equality by Richard Kluger.

Visit the Zief catalog to explore materials focussed on Black experience and the law. Relevant topics include: constitutional law; segregation and Jim Crow laws; the civil rights era; race, gender, and queerness; mass incarceration and capital punishment; property law; and international law.


Credit to Mary McInerney, editor of USF Magazine and USF News,
and her events article, “Explore Black History Month at USF,”

Black Mental Health Matters (BMHM) Group, Thursdays, Feb. 2 through Feb. 23, 1:15 to 2:45 p.m., Zoom. BMHM is a chapter of the international Mental Health Advocacy movement and seeks to provide supportive, communal therapy spaces for Black scholars. BMHM includes mindfulness meditation practices, group exploration, empowerment exercises; and conversations exploring intersectional identities, stigma, and self-acceptance.  

Lyricist Lounge, Feb. 10, 7–9 p.m., UC 4 Lounge. Celebrate Black student voices at this month’s open-mic night. The theme is “Heroes.” Contact Ann Le for more information: ale32@usfca.edu

Black Artists Speak, Feb. 23, 11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m., Thacher Gallery/Zoom. This roundtable conversation will be hosted by Associate Professor Robert Moses; USF’s 2022-23 Gerardo Marín Postdoctoral Fellow, Rivka Valérie Louissaint; and Sheila Smith McKoy, vice provost for equity, inclusion, and faculty excellence. Topics will include Black creators and their role in the arts. Register online here.

Black Joy Parade, USF Black Alumni Society, Feb. 26, 12–7:30 p.m. (parade 12:30–2 p.m.), downtown Oakland, near the 12th Street BART stop. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni are invited to march with The University of San Francisco Black Alumni Society in the parade. Register online here.

LOCAL EVENTS: San Francisco and Oakland

Meditation workshops, film screenings, book clubs, musical performances, lecture series, and more!

[Angela Davis]. Poster from the Yanker Poster Collection, [between 1965 and 1980]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017645754/
San Francisco Public Library: “More Than A Month 2023”: Click for more events.  

  • February 8th, 2023, 12:00pm-12:30pm: Workshop: Meditation in The African American Center. African American Center Exhibit Space, Main Library 3rd floor. 
  • February 21st, 7:00pm – 8:00pm: Presentation: Fighting for Survival, Fighting on Arrival: The Buffalo Soldiers in the West. Join Golden Gate National Recreation Area Park Rangers as they explore the history of the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks. Watch live on Youtube. Register

The San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society: Click for more events. 

  • February 3rd, 2023: Black History Month Kick-Off City Hall Rotunda, with a performance from authentic New Orleans brass band MJ Brass Boppers and dancers on the steps of City Hall. “Resist in joy!”
  • February 19th, 2023: 1st Annual Black History Street Fair, sponsored by Brothers for Change. 2pm-6:30pm at 1700 block of O’Farrell St. (between Fillmore and Steiner), San Francisco. 

Museum of The African Diaspora (MoAD): Click for more events. 

Oakland Public Library’s Black Culture Fest A Celebration of The African Diaspora: Click for more events. 

  • February 1st-March 31st, 2023: Exhibit: The Black Press in Oakland. Main Library. A show on Black newspapers and Black journalists in and around Oakland, from the 1860s to modern day. Jointly curated by the Oakland History Center and the Magazine & Newspaper Room at the Main Library.
  • February 8th, 2023, 1:00pm-2:30pm, Black Culture Fest: African American Health Academy. Join experts from the Alameda County Public Health Department in discussion about cooking, nutrition, and health disparities affecting the African American community. This event will be located at the Eastmont Branch

The African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO): Click for more events. 

  • Every Saturday, 12:00pm-1:00pm: Tours of AAMLO. “Explore Visions Toward Tomorrow: The African American Community in Oakland, 1890-1990, a long-term exhibition that examines one century of African Americans building families, neighborhoods, and businesses as they fought for social justice and freedom in the dynamic East Bay, Northern California.”
  • February 25th, 2:00pm-4:00pm: Black Resistance: Starting from a Seed. Join Urban Gardener and founder of Cultivating Gardens, Claudia Noble-Levingston, in collaboration with the AAMLO Seed Lending Library for a hands-on workshop exploring Black resistance through gardening.

Oakland Museum of California (OMCA): Click for more events. 

  • October 7th, 2022- June 11th, 2023: Angela Davis “Seize The Time” Exhibit
  • Ongoing: Black Power exhibit on the history of the Black Power movements in California. 


Library of Congress: Click for more events

  • February 16th, 2023, 2:00pm-3:00pm EST: Congress.gov Webinar. Join Bibliographic and Research Instruction Librarian, Barbara Bavis, along with the Chief of the Law Library of Congress Office of External Relations, Robert Brammer, for an overview of Congress.gov. This event will be livestreamed on zoomgov.com. 
  • February 23rd, 2023, 2:00pm-3:00pm EST: Foreign and Comparative Law Webinar. This webinar will provide an overview on the definition of human trafficking under the U.N. protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, and highlight the difference between human trafficking and people smuggling.This event will be livestreamed on zoomgov.com

National Archives: Click for more events 

  • February 16th, 2023, 1:00pm-2:00pm, EST: Join journalists Mark Whitaker and Jonathan Alter discuss their book, “Saying It Loud: 1966—The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement,” which explores how “Black Power” forever changed the civil right movement… “lessons which will still resonate in the era of Black Lives Matter and the fierce contemporary battles over voting rights, identity politics, and the teaching of Black history.” 


Photograph of The African American History Monument in Columbia, South Carolina, taken by photographer Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.


American Bar Association Webpage: The Origins of the Modern-Day Racial Wealth Gap; Black Lawyers in America Webinar Series; Celebrating Black Legal Trailblazers

Barack Obama, Presidential Proclamation On National African American History Month. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. January 29th, 2016. 

Gerald R. Ford, Message on the Observance of Black History Week. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. February 03, 1975.

History.com Editors, Black History Month. History.com. A&E Television Networks. Updated: November 30th, 2022. 

History.com Editors. Black History Milestones: Timelines. Histroy.Com. Updated: January 11, 2023. 

Library of Congress Research Guides, Black History Month: A Commemorative Observances Legal Research Guide, History and Overview.  

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, Legal Timeline. Library of Congress Website. 

Pruitt, Sarah. “The Man Behind Black History Month.” History.com. Updated: January 31st, 2022.