Sometimes we just take something for granted … like how and when a movement started. So sometimes you must go back and research its beginnings. In the case of Black History Month it began with a man whose contribution to African-American History, while being substantial, is often overlooked. That man is Carter G. Woodson.
Carter grew up, the son of two former slaves, in rural Virginia in 1875. His mother taught him how to read at a young age and his father, an unlettered Union Army Veteran, honed that skill by having Carter recite to him the newspaper every morning. It was through this education that Carter became familiar with the value of knowledge and the importance of learning about current events and of history. Additionally his interests and desire to learn grew around stories of African Americans who were resisters and runaways. That curiosity was nurtured when Oliver Jones, the owner of the mine Woodson had worked at since he was a young child, offered the literate young scribe free meals during lunch if he would read Jones the daily newspaper. The position quickly grew and Woodson’s duties would begin to include using Jones’ personal library and newspapers to research issues that individual African American would come to him with. Through his research, Jones would begin to learn about the history of his people and crucial aspects of how it was affected by reporting, self-knowledge, and the economics of the time.
“If a race has no history, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world” – Carter G. Woodson
Eventually, Woodson would outgrow Virginia, and advance his education all the way to Harvard where he earned a teaching degree in History. But as time went on Carter began to notice a troubling pattern in history. It turns out that Black history was intentionally being omitted from history books and if it was being mentioned it was being done to advance a misconception about Africa (usually as an effort to affirm some false sense of European superiority and African inferiority). This disturbed Woodson because he felt the African Americans were suffering from the fact that their true history was not being told correctly. This suffering manifested itself in self-esteem issues that came from lack of self-knowledge and awareness of one’s past and was constantly perpetuated by a lack of a meaningful education. So to correct this wrong, Carter G. Woodson, retired from his life as a teacher and rededicated himself to bringing full attention to the African American’s rightful place in history.
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again” – George Santayana
In 1915, Carter would team up with a prominent minister, Jesse Moorland, to found an organization “dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of Black Americans” called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization that still exists to this very day, although it has since been renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The ASNLH also began publishing (with Woodson as editor and chief contributor) the Journal of Negro Studies (which is after nine decades still being published today as the Journal of African American Studies and is still considered the central history journal when it comes to African American history … and guess what you have access to it as a PSC student by clicking on the link). Now, at the time of the ASNLH’s inception, the United States had entered a certain precipice when it came to white and black relations. Although the Civil War had ended and Black slaves were emancipated, Jim Crow laws had begun to sweep the South, threatening to effectively nullify any advances that had been made. Also, the fledgling NAACP, had recently led their first protest, as they stood up against the D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of Nation, which depicted Blacks as the root of all evil, spreading crime and lusting after white women, and the KKK is portrayed in a heroic light as a savior of order and civilization. Other troubling issues had also arisen with Woodrow Wilson being elected as the first southern-born President since the Civil War.
None of these things deterred Woodson, however, and as the Association’s popularity grew, he used his position as a pulpit to correct the wrongs he had seen effect African American History. In 1926, Woodson created and ASNLH sponsored the first Black History Week, an annual event that would occur during the second week of February to correspond with the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (February 12th) and Frederick Douglass (February 14th). Woodson’s feelings were that African Americans had a rich history that they should be proud of and his vision for the week would be a way to focus on the contributions of African Americans to not only American history but also to World history. This week, he felt, could be a cornerstone source of pride for Blacks and a source of understanding for whites. As the years passed Black History Week became a staple of community centers and educational institution and as the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, so did Black History Week on campuses across America. Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford, passed a decree that not only officially recognized the event, but also changed it from the second week of February to the month of February as a whole. Now 87 years after Woodson established the precedent America as a nation still recognizes the month as a time to reflect on the achievements and history of African Americans.
If you are looking for books on Carter G. Woodson you can find them here. You can also stop by the Library and check out any of these books we have on display for Black History Month.
Continue Reading for more resources on Black History Month and Carter G. Woodson.
Dagbovie, P. (2003). Making Black History Practical and Popular: Carter G. Woodson, the Proto Black Studies Movement and the Struggle for Black Liberation. Western Journal Of Black Studies, 27(4), 263-274.
King, L. J., Crowley, R. M., & Brown, A. L. (2010). The Forgotten Legacy of Carter G. Woodson: Contributions to Multicultural Social Studies and African American History. Social Studies, 101(5), 211-215.