Guest Column: Black History Month and Carter G. Woodson’s Contributions Across the Country – Albert Lea Tribune
Guest column by John V. Smith
Carter G. Woodson is known today as “the father of black history” and is credited with laying the foundation for the widespread adoption of black studies in American schools. When Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Black Life and History in 1915, black accomplishments were largely ignored by professional historians. Convinced that without a recorded history, the contributions of his race would be forgotten, Woodson set out to provide a way to study Black American heritage. With the founding of the association and, later, the Journal of Negro History, Woodson provided a means for scholars to research and publish articles on the black experience. Black History Week (now Black History Month), launched by Woodson in 1926, opened the study of history to the general public, providing the information needed to appreciate and understand the role of blacks in American history.
Born the son of impoverished former slaves, Woodson’s early years were marked by an unwavering commitment to education. Forced to work on his father’s farm and later in the West Virginia coal mines, he was largely self-taught until age 19. After graduating from Douglass High School in West Virginia in 2896, he went to the then famous Berca College in Kentucky. for his acceptance of both white and black students. He left in 1900, to act as principal of his old high school, but returned to Berca in 1901. He received his B. Litt. degree in 1903.
For the next 15 years, Woodson divided his time between foreign travel, teaching, and the continued study of history. For four years he worked as a teacher and then as a school supervisor in the Philippines, and in 1906, having become fluent in French and Spanish, he studied history for a semester at the Sorbonne. Upon his return to the United States, he attended the University of Chicago. After earning his RA in 1907 and his master’s degree a year later, he moved on to Harvard and later a teaching job at a high school in Washington, DC. This position allowed him to pay for his higher education and to do research for his thesis at the Library of Congress. When, in 1912, Woodson got his doctorate. from Harvard, he became the second black man in the United States to receive a doctorate in history.
By this time, Woodson was firmly committed to the mission to which he would devote his life: the study and documentation of black history. In 1915, Woodson and a group of four friends sat down at a Chicago YMCA to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of Negro Life and of African American History, or ASALH. The association was the first historical society devoted exclusively to research on African Americans. It was established to encourage academic achievement, to sponsor research projects, and to collect and preserve documents documenting the black past.At a time when few black people were invited to participate in historical conferences, the association’s annual meeting provided an opportunity for black scholars to present research papers in front of their peers.Read More importantly, the association began publishing in 1916 a scholarly quarterly, the Journal of Negro History.
Always recognized as the most distinguished periodical in the field of black history, the Journal was innovative, both in its interpretation of history and in the research methods used to collect data. As an editor for more than 30 years, Woodson encouraged scholars to seek out information previously ignored by mainstream historians. Quoted in a Journal article by Jacqueline Goggin, Lorenzo Green recalled that “black and white scholars have turned to The Journal of Negro History if they wish to publish findings that contradict currently accepted black views”. Covering a wide range of topics, the Journal led to a shift in the attention of historians from the perspective of the master to that of the slave. Woodson and other Journal contributors also used census data, birth and death certificates, marriage records, letters, diaries, and oral histories to investigate the black past. It is only recently that this method of research has been widely accepted by historians.
Woodson retired from teaching in 1922 to concentrate on his work with the association. Securing the funds to run the organization was always difficult, and Woodson spent much of his life struggling to keep the association afloat. During the early years of its founding, Woodson supported the association largely through his teaching salary. Although it briefly obtained grants from Rockefeller and Carnegie funds, it was forced in the 1930s – at the height of the Depression – to rely almost solely on contributions from individual black people and black organizations.
As documented by the American Historical Review, at the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Stamp issue ceremony in 1984, Jim Finch, then Deputy Postmaster General, remarked, “The Association was [Woodson’s] life… For him, no task was too small or unimportant if it helped the Association. Whether scrubbing office floors or bringing books to post offices to send to other historians, Carter G. Woodson immersed himself in the activities of the Association. Never married, Woodson reportedly once said to a colleague, “I don’t have time to get married. I am married to my job.
In 1926, the first Black History Week was created. Woodson described the event “as one of the happiest steps the association has ever taken.” Expanded in 1976 to include an entire month, the national celebration is held annually during the month of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Today, school programs, exhibits, essays and poetry competitions are held during Black History Month to dramatize black accomplishments and encourage black children, in particular, to develop pride in their story. As quoted by Lerone Bennett in Ebony, WEB DuBois commented that Woodson “literally caused this country, which has the slightest respect for people of color, to recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which he studied the effect that the American Negro has on life, who in one life, unaided, built such a national celebration’ thought and action in the United States.
With the creation of Black History Month, Woodson saw the need to publish a journal that was more closely associated with schools and that simplified the study of history for the average reader. Thus, in 1937, Woodson founded the Negro History Bulletin. Until his death in 1950, Woodson devoted himself to running the association, publishing its journals and editing the six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.
John V. Smith is a resident of Albert Lea.