February 28, 2011

Feb 28 – Dr. Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Well, today marks the end of Black History Month; so it seems fitting to profile its origins and its founder, in my final post for this year.

Black History Month began as Negro History Week in the second week of February, 1926, to honor the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist, Fredrick Douglass.  It was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, African-American historian, author and journalist.

President Abraham Lincoln
Frederick Douglass

Carter was born the son of freed slaves, in December, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia. As a teenager, Carter helped his family to make ends meet by working as a sharecropper, miner and garbage truck driver. This meant that he was not able to attend school on a regular basis, so he educated himself until the age of 20, when he was finally able to attend Douglass High School, in Fayette County, West Virginia. Carter was a very bright student and was able to earn his High School diploma in less than two years.  He subsequently earned a Bachelor of Literature Degree from Berea College in Kentucky, after teaching in Fayette County for three years.

A young Carter G. Woodson

Students at Berea College

A few years later, Carter was sent, by the U.S. War Department, to the Philippines to be a school supervisor, where he spent four years.  He simultaneously took correspondence courses from the University of Chicago. Carter finished his Masters Degree in History, Romance Languages and Literature from there, physically on campus in 1908 – but not before traveling throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, and studying for a short time at The Sorbonne, in Paris, France (now Paris University). In 1912, Carter earned his Doctorate in History at Ivy League School, Harvard University – becoming the second African-American (behind W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a Ph.D. at the prestigious institution. After earning his Doctorate, Dr. Woodson continued teaching in the public school system, later joining the faculty at Howard University, in Washington DC, as a professor – eventually being promoted to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

University of Chicago

Howard University

By this time, Dr. Woodson had observed that African-American history was either ignored or misrepresented in most textbooks; so he began extensive research. In 1915, he published his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. That same year, in Chicago, he also co-founded The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History ((ASNLH) which later became The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History), along with colleague, Alexander L. Jackson, and three other associates. The next year, Dr. Woodson launched the Journal of Negro History, a scholarly publication. To date, it has never missed an issue, despite The Great Depression, loss of support from foundations and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African-American History and continues to be published. Dr. Woodson also formed the African-American-owned, Associated Publishers Press in 1921, which produced several of his own works, including The History of the Negro Church (1921), The Negro in Our History (1922) and The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). After founding the ASNLH, Dr. Woodson also became very active in Black organizations, such as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Friends of Negro Freedom. Very passionate about ‘the cause’, he made proposals to the NAACP to acquire new members and gain strength. The NAACP did not welcome his ideas and made that very clear.  The leaders were concerned that White businessmen would be unhappy with the NAACP’s escalation. Dr Woodson’s response was, “I am not afraid of being sued by White businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me." At that time, there were no men ‘brave’ enough to help him. This disagreement actually led to Dr. Woodson ending his affiliation with the NAACP.

2002 edition when renamed to The Journal of African-American History
2010 edition

However, Dr. Woodson’s commitment to African-American history, and to improving the lives of African-Americans, had not waned.  He decided to commit the rest of his life to his research – often working 18 hours per day and accumulating a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications.  During the 1920s, Dr. Woodson received tens of thousands dollars from several, White philanthropists to fund the ASNLH’s various efforts.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson wanted to formalize his commitment, so he lobbied schools and organizations to participate in a special program to encourage the study of African-American history, which began in February 1926, with Negro History Week. By the early 1930s, Dr. Woodson relied upon Black communities throughout the country to maintain his organization’s activities; but he had many detractors – White and Black – who did not believe that African-American history should be separately recognized or celebrated.  Dr. Woodson was not to be deterred. In 1937, he created The Negro History Bulletin to be used as a study guide for Negro History Week (and beyond) and throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Woodson spoke at countless elementary and high schools, Negro History Week events and at the graduation ceremonies for many Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

Negro History Week Bulletin with comments from President Truman

In the decades which followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing annual proclamations recognizing Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the Civil Rights Movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month across the country. President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month, in 1976, calling upon the public to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." Since then, every American President has designated February as Black History Month (which is often now called African-American History Month) and endorsed a specific theme. This year’s theme has been: African-Americans and The Civil War (click here to read President Obama’s Proclamation on this year’s theme).

Dr. Woodson worked tirelessly until his sudden death at the age of 74, in 1950.  He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Maryland. To this day, there are people who think that celebrating Black History is not necessary. Thankfully, there are many more – including myself – who do. The Father of Black History left a timeless legacy, from which we have learned – and will continue to learn – amazing facts and stories about how Black people around the world have helped to shape all history.

On a personal note, I hope that you have enjoyed seeing Black History through ‘my eyes’. For those of you who have read the blog, commented on it (here, or on Facebook), ‘liked it’ on Facebook, become a ‘Follower’ or forwarded the link to friends and family, I truly thank you, and am humbled by your response and encouragement.  Remember that Black History is everyone’s history; and it is not just for one month. It’s for life.

Until next year…

Sources: Wikipedia, Biography Channel, History Channel, About.com, CNN, Google Images

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