Terrence Proctor, a 14-year-old Rabaut Junior High student, stood before his class last week to make a special history report on the Black Panthers.

Pointing to pictures of Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale pasted on a construction paper chart, Proctor began, "Now here are some ancient guys."

And with that, Black History Month observances in Washington were under way.

Proctor continued, scanning the 1970 issue Ebony magazine cutouts of the leather-jacketed, shotgun-toting militants. "They are subdued now, you know, out of action. More up to date is this guy," he said, fingering a picture of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the leader of Operation PUSH.

Around the city, observances include tributes to black women by way of lectures and films at the city's Martin Luther King library, an appearance by militant Stokely Carmichael at Howard University, an African Folktale Festival at the Benning Branch Library and a play featuring the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar at the New Theater Center for Ethnic Art downtown.

Federal agencies such as HEW, the Agriculture Department and the Community Services Administration brought into their auditoriums professors from black colleges and ambassadors from African countries, to speak on the contributions of blacks to America.

Forty states and Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have signed proclamations declaring the observance "official."

When Negro History Week was started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, its main purpose was to curb widespread misconceptions about black people -- even among black Americans.

"In those days, many blacks wanted to be white. Processed hair and skin lighteners were very popular," said Dr. J. Rupert Picott, director of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, which was founded by Woodson.

In theory, Picott said, the contributions of blacks would one day become so well known that such observances no longer would be necessary.

Few believe that day is here.

"Some of our children still forget that they are black," said Sarah Mitchell, principal at Rabaut Junior High, which is situated at North Dakota and Kansas Avenues NE. "Integration has posed a special challenge. Our children badly need heros. They need somebody to go by," she said.

Bernardette Harrod, 12, stared at the history board before her and decided who she wanted to be like when she grew up. "Harriet Tubman. She was real smart. She had an idea for an underground railroad to free the slaves."

Michael Birton, 13, boldly cut in. "I like Frederick Douglass. He was a spokesman. He was a great... abolitionist for his people."

The name Negro History Week was changed to Black History Week during a convention in 1972 of what was then the Association for the Study of Negro Life.

In 1976, the observance was expanded to Black History Month.

"The response was tremendous," said Picott, who edits and dispatches literature about blacks to schools and organizations around the country.

The idea of spotlighting black achievements was not popular from 1954 to 1965, said Willie L. Miles, Picott's associate director. However, she said, the nostalgic Bicentennial and the television premier of Roots, Alex Haley's best-sellers, in January 1977 renewed interest dramatically.

"This started out as a radical idea 53 years ago," Picott said "Negro History went against the grain because the prevailing view of Africa was that it was a hot place with a lot of naked savages."

The need for a Black History Month is still great, he said, making his point by quoting from a 1960 history textbook that until recently was used in Virginia public schools.

"Negroes came to Jamestown as slaves. They were happy. Period," he said.

Back at Rabaut, Sharon Pratt, a 14-year-old, reflected on her teachings about black history, "I feel that if I had been living back then, I would not have made it. Some of my friends say whites haven't changed since the old days, but I don't believe that yet."