American history has always been contested. In the wake of the Civil War, its White losers invented the heroic myth of the “Lost Cause,” to justify their drive to reverse the political and social gains made by Blacks during Reconstruction across the South. They erected Confederate statues throughout the region, even in the nation’s capital, to provided physical testimony to their dominion. Slowly but surely they erased Black history from the American narrative.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a central part of my own family history, was erased and forgotten for nearly 100 years. This example was far from unique. However, in the early 20th Century, prominent Black historians worked diligently to recover the stories of Black Americans. In August of 2019, that effort culminated in the publication of the New York Times 1619 Project (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html). This project placed the Black American narrative, particularly chattel slavery, at the center of the American story.
Unfortunately, The 1619 Project generated a major reaction among conservative Republicans. Decrying the “woke agenda” as offensive to the sensibilities of White Americans and a violation of their deeply held mythology of our nation’s origins, they have moved aggressively to legally circumscribe the teaching of American History to exclude the Black experience. Given these circumstances, it is important to revisit the life of The Father of Black History and DC resident, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, whose Shaw home will open as a national historic site in 2023 (https://www.nps.gov/cawo/index.htm).
Who Was Carter G. Woodson?
Dr. Woodson’s own early life is worthy of study during Black History Month. Poverty drove him at the age of 17 to move to West Virginia to work as a coal miner. At 20, he went to high school, eventually going on to progressive Berea College in Kentucky, where he received a baccalaureate degree in 1903. He later earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. He eventually entered Harvard University, doing most of the work on his doctorate while teaching in the segregated Colored DC public school system. After defending his dissertation on “The Disruption of Virginia,” he received his PhD in History in 1912, becoming the second African American to do so at Harvard.
The Father of Black History
In 1915, Dr. Woodson, with three other co-founders, established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in Chicago. He said that the organization “proclaimed as its purpose the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, the study of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in this field, and the promotion of harmony among the races by acquainting the one with the other.” Most African Americans were unaware of the contributions and accomplishments of people of color to the nation’s history because the subject was intentionally suppressed and distorted, not taught in schools and not well researched or known. And publishers saw no potential market for books on the subject.
Dr. Woodson served as the director of research and editor for the organization until his death in 1950. The presidents of ASNLH during this period included Shaw resident Mary McCleod Bethune, an important Black educator and civil and women’s right leader, who served from 1938 to 1952. But without Dr. Woodson’s passion, commitment and personal sacrifices, Black history might be even more poorly understood and rarely taught than it is today.
In the early years of the association, Dr. Woodson held a number of academic positions, including principal of Armstrong Manual Training High School, serving a year as the dean of Howard University’s School of Liberal Arts and as dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In 1922, he decided to devote himself exclusively to the operations of ASNLH. On July 22, 1922, he purchased his home at 1538 Ninth Street NW, which also served as the national headquarters of ASNLH and his publishing company, Associated Publishers. Eventually, the home’s first floor was devoted to the clerical operations of ASNLH and the second to Dr. Woodson’s office, while he lived on the third floor. The basement was used for the storage of books and publications.
In 1926, Dr. Woodson made perhaps his most lasting contribution to American culture: his creation of Negro History Week. Woodson thought that a week in February, with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and Frederick Douglass (February 14th), would be the most appropriate date to hold the event. The week “should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but a history of the world devoid of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
The idea of Negro History Week immediately took hold, with annual celebrations in American cities. In 1932, 1,000 school children met in a caucus room of a House office building under the auspices of Representative Oscar DePriest and other Black congressmen. Black History Month, after almost a century, is still an important date on the American calendar. Woodson also started the Negro History Bulletin, a monthly publication aimed at high school teachers and students, to promote Black history throughout the year.
The Legacy of Dr. Woodson
In the late 1960s, there was a re-release of the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” While my parents were not fans of the movie, they couldn’t easily explain why. So my sister and I went to see it for ourselves. During intermission in the theater, we compared notes with a classmate and did not see much objectionable in the film. That was largely due to the fact that we were largely the product of integrated school systems, which carried the standard narrative that the slaves just sat around until Union forces freed them and that Blacks during Reconstruction were largely manipulated to drain the wealth of the South.
From the perspective that was given to us, we were not aware of how important slavery was to the United States. As Yale University Professor David Blight summarized, by 1860 “the nearly four million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all the manufacturing and railroads combined.” We also hadn’t heard that over 200,000 Blacks, representing 10 percent of the Union forces, served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, including as we later learned, a great-grandfather of ours.
Dr. Woodson Today
“It will be fifty years before the world appreciates what I am trying to do,” Woodson predicted. Things started to change with the rise of the Black Consciousness movement on college campuses in the late 1960s. The life of Blacks, after decades of being abstractly described by White sociologists, were now recognized as a subject worth studying. Dr. Woodson’s Negro History Week soon turned into Black History Month, commemorated by the White House every year since 1976.
Dr. Woodson’s work served an important foundation for the development of Black Studies. In college, when I wanted to write a geography paper on the phenomenon of all-Black towns that developed in the South and West, the only book length study of the subject I could find in the library was written by Dr. Woodson.
This year the nation celebrates Black History Month, whose theme somewhat ironically is “Black Resistance.” With the whisper of Woodson’s voice in our ears, let us stand up and again demand our history’s central place in the American Story. We will never again be erased. May your first act of resistance be a visit to the new Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.