Monday began the official celebration of Black History Month, founded by the Woodson Institute’s namesake, Carter Godwin Woodson. When Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, the nation was inching toward the ‘winter’ that was the Great Depression, but in calling for a celebration to be observed annually in the week between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Woodson-ever attuned to the eloquence of the symbolic-expressed his lifelong faith in and commitment to the ‘emancipatory’ promises of African American history.
Negro History Week eventually expanded to Black History Month in 1976 (the year of the bicentennial) and is now observed across the nation in rural hamlets, small towns, and urban capitals alike and, to this day, Carter G. Woodson remains revered as ‘The Father of African American History.’ In agitating for the creation of a national celebration of the heritages of peoples of African descent, Woodson sought to educate the nation about the intimate linkages between the cultures and societies of Africa and those established by persons of African descent in the New World. But more, he sought to remold the attitude of the popular mind by establishing that the Negro was a “factor in world culture,” not the distorted creature and creation of social science.
Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia (Buckingham Country), a scant 10 years after the Civil War and roughly two years before the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction. The son of former slaves, he worked in the mines and quarries until the age of 20, obtaining his education during the four-month term then customary for Black pupils. He graduated from high school at age 21 and immediately enrolled at Berea College in Kentucky, graduating with honors. After working in the Philippines as a school supervisor, Woodson returned to the United States in order to attend the University of Chicago, from which he received both a BA (in 1907) and MA (1908).
Woodson then journeyed abroad to do graduate work in history at the Sorbonne. He completed his graduate training at Harvard, receiving a doctorate in History in 1912, only the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in history at Harvard, the first being the eminent scholar, W.E.B. DuBois. Woodson went on to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), a learned society in 1915, and the Journal of Negro History (now The Journal of African American History) the very next year, its first issue appearing January 1, 1916. During his 35-year tenure as editor of this quarterly, it became the single most influential outlet for pioneering work in African American and African Studies.
For Woodson, African American history was more than a field of scholarly endeavor and significance. It was, he insisted, “a cause” that would spare “the Negro the awful fate of becoming a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” Expansive in reach, Woodson’s “cause” encompassed not just a comprehensive program of scholarly research and publication. It also included a program of public education in the fullest meaning of the term. Woodson founded The Negro History Bulletin, a journal targeted at primary and secondary school teachers, established Negro History Clubs, and a Research Department which worked with teachers to plan courses and curricula in this new field of African American history.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Woodson provided an account of the organization and its multi-faceted agenda: “At present the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History publishes two magazines; researches in Negro history; directs studies in clubs and schools; promotes the home study of the Negro by mail; produces texts on the Negro for schools and colleges; collects and preserves the valuable documents of Negro history; supplies libraries with special collections of rare books on the Negro; and educates promising and enterprising young men for service in historical research.