Why Was February Chosen for Black History Month?

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iStock

Every February since 1976, the United States has celebrated the achievements of African-Americans during Black History Month. The month-long celebration puts those accomplishments and milestones in focus via the media and in classrooms.

But why February? Was that part of the calendar chosen for any specific purpose?

It was. Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” a label applied by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Woodson was bothered by the fact that many textbooks and other historical reviews minimized or ignored the contributions of black figures. Along with his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—later the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—Woodson earmarked the second week in February to raise awareness of these stories.

Woodson chose that week specifically because it covered the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (February 14) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12). The ensuing publicity led many mayors and college campuses to recognize the week; through the years, the groundswell of support allowed the occasion to stretch throughout the entire month.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month official, saying that he was urging everyone to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

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What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.

Why Do So Many Diners Look Like Train Cars?

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iStock

No matter how many fine dining options you may have in your area, there’s something about sitting down in a diner that can’t be matched. Their menus are models of American comfort food, from meatloaf to patty melts. The coffee cups are bottomless. There’s usually a toothpick dispensary at the register.

Many diners across the country have one additional identifying trait: They’re shaped like a train car, a sleek and narrow compartment that looks like it belongs on a set of tracks. When and why did this style choice become synonymous with diners?

In a piece for Atlas Obscura, Anne Ewbank shed some light on the practice. The early 20th century saw a rise in entrepreneurs who were interested in meeting the need for casual dining establishments for people hurrying to or from work. Their ambitions had evolved from the lunch wagons of the late 1800s, which provided shelter from weather by putting up awnings or letting people sit inside on stools.

City ordinances, however, made such operations a little tricky: Many food wagons needed to be permanent fixtures in order to avoid the narrow operating hours mandated by communities. Rather than hire a contractor or lease an existing commercial space, people opted to order prefabricated, mobile carts that could be shipped to their location by rail or towed by truck. These dining cars became known as “diners.”

Like the pop-up locations of today, the diners could appear virtually overnight. Most were delivered in one piece; others were modular, requiring minimal assembly, and could offer a greater variety of styles and seating capacities. For small business owners, their affordability and convenience made it possible to strike out on their own. Some manufacturers even offered to repair fixtures by having the diner shipped back to the factory.

The look became so intertwined with fast-dining that some owners recycled old train cars to capture the aesthetic. Today, even diners built from scratch often mimic the narrow, elongated shape so familiar to patrons—a design now borne out of choice rather than necessity. It's a curious bit of history, and one worth pondering the next time you grab a toothpick.

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