As we prepared for the two programs the History Center presented this year for Black History Month, it dawned on me that I knew nothing about how Black History Month came to be. In the process of my research, I discovered a children’s book about Carter G. Woodson, written by the parents of local author Fred McKissack. Since Fred is a friend, I contacted him to see if his parents had any thoughts on Woodson (whose work led to Black History Month) after their research and writing about his life. And I gained some insights into how our educational system has not always worked for the positive for African-American students.
Carter G. Woodson was born on December 19, 1875, the son of former slaves James Henry Woodson and Anne Eliza Riddle. James Woodson joined the Union army near the end of the Civil War and he and Anne married after the war, settling in Huntington, WV. In 1874, they moved to a farm in New Canton, VA where Carter was born.
James Woodson could neither read nor write but as Patricia and Fredrick McKissack say in their book, he told his seven children, “It’s never too late to learn.” They carry this theme throughout their book, a fine lesson for children. (Carter G. Woodson : the father of Black history / Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, copyright 2002, Enslow Publishers Inc.)
At age 16, the younger Woodson went to West Virginia to work in the coal mines and on the railroad. By 1893, his parents had moved back to Huntington. They had two daughters who wanted to go to school, as did their son. Since he was 18, past the standard age of graduation, he had to convince the principal that his attendance would be a positive for the school and after proving his worth as a student graduated within 18 months.
Woodson then went to Berea College in Kentucky, completing his undergraduate degree in the summers while working as the principal of a school. In 1900, he became principal of Fredrick Douglass High School, his alma mater, and remained in that position for three years.
On December 19, 1903, he began work in the Philippines as a teacher and had an epiphany that would change his life and that of countless students. The Philippine children had little interest in the books and other materials provided for them because they could not relate to the experiences of white, American children who were the focus of the textbooks. When Woodson realized this, he changed his teaching methods and related the schoolwork to experiences that Philippine children would have. Along the way he realized that black children faced the same dilemma—trying to learn based upon a culture they did not know or particularly understand.
Woodson spent his summers studying at the University of Chicago and in 1908 came home to stay and complete his masters degree. He went on to Harvard and received his PhD in history in 1912. He took a job at M Street High School in Washington DC where he taught history, French and Spanish. He taught black history in his school, not common in American schools of the time, with the philosophy that Black Americans “must teach ourselves”.
Woodson was laying the foundations for the state of African American history and Black Studies as we know them today. Woodson is the only individual of slave parentage to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard and was the first professionally trained historian to devote his scholarly career to advancing black history.
“To date, with few possible exceptions, no individual has contributed as much as Woodson did to the evolution of African American history.” (“The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene” by Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, University of Illinois Press, 2007)
In 1914, Woodson became a member of the American Negro Academy, a group that found and saved African American writings. In 1915, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) to teach black people about themselves and their history. He became a prolific scholar, writing, co-authoring and/or editing more than 20 books, more than a dozen major articles and countless newspaper columns and book reviews.
Two heroes of Woodson’s were Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both born in February. He used the month as the time in 1926 to implement “Negro History Week”, which later became Black History Month. He received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for his effort.
Woodson eventually left teaching to run the ASNLH full time. According to Dagbovie, one of Woodson’s most important contributions to the early black history movement was “his mission and ability to transform black history into a practical and popular medium for uplifting blacks and challenging racial prejudice”. He “democratized the study of black history by extending the discipline to various groups of scholars that were not professionally trained…” maintaining that “the study and dissemination of black history needed to extend to the working-class and youth sectors of the black community”.
“Woodson reasoned that the knowledge of African American history was, after all, an important and practical (though nonmaterial) way in which black people could become liberated and empowered.”
Negro History Week was the first major achievement in popularizing black history, says Dagbovie, and unique because it focused on black youth.
“Although some critics deemed Woodson’s strategy of gradually introducing black history as a supplement to ‘white-stream’ American history as too conservative, the approach was pragmatic and very radical when analyzed in the broader context of his agenda. Woodson knew that if he had demanded that black history be integrated into the American educational system all at once, his plan would have been too easily dismissed. A modest, week-long celebration during the winter season appeared much less threatening to the white public, to philanthropists, and to those ‘highly mis-educated Negroes’ whom he sought to convert into devout black nationalists.”
Woodson wrote a book in 1933 entitled “The Mis-Education of the Negro”. In the chapter “How We Drifted from the Truth”, he writes:
“Negro educators of today may have more sympathy and interest in the race than the whites now exploiting Negro institutions as educators, but the former have no more vision than their competitors. Taught from books of the same bias, trained by Caucasians of the same prejudices or by Negroes of enslaved minds, one generation of Negro teachers after another have served no higher purpose than to do what they are told to do. In other words, a Negro teacher instructing Negro children is in many respects a white teacher thus engaged, for the program in each case is about the same.”
Woodson wanted blacks to study history seriously and incorporate it genuinely into their world views. He argued that the fact that blacks do have a history could significantly decrease racial prejudice and that if blacks knew their history they would be inspired to act, telling teachers a historian was a “rigorous collector and organizer of facts, that children could be historians by recording their families’ pasts, and that even those not formally educated could be historians of some sort by writing down, in whatever language, the histories of their communities.”
He firmly believed that black history needed to be recorded by black people.
From Dagbovie’s book:
“Woodson instructed blacks to become more radical in their politics. He wanted blacks to use politics only to better secure their goals when practical and to create a brand of politics from within. Woodson believed that the political tradition in America, which had oppressed his people for so long was not designed to empower black people. He advocated a straightforward, bourgeoisie, economic nationalist platform. He believed that blacks should patronize black businesses and warned his readers that such an alternative would work only if the black businesses had the community’s well-being at heart. He advised blacks not to become enslaved by the vices of materialism. He counseled blacks not to waste money on unnecessary items. While he valued hard, manual labor, he discouraged blacks from leading a life in traditional industrial education. By the 1930s, such an approach was becoming impractical in his mind.”
Woodson never married and spent the bulk of his time writing, researching and promoting the study of history. He had a tight circle of seven younger black historians who served as his apprentices for varying lengths of time: Alrutheus A. Taylor, Charles H. Wesley, Luther Porter Jackson, Lorenzo Johnston Greene, Rayford W. Logan, William Sherman Savage and James Hugo Johnston. Woodson and Greene (1899-1988) took “black history to the masses, the working class and youth throughout the nation,” says Dagbovie. His protégés were reluctant to write about Woodson and he did not encourage academic looks at his work.
Woodson died on April 3, 1950. He was praised by many after his death, but not W.E.B. Du Bois, who “wrote a scathing critique of Woodson in Masses and Mainstream….According to Du Bois, Woodson had ‘a good mind, but was by no means brilliant.’”
Du Bois said Woodson overate, was stubborn, had no ties family or social, and was a loner with a “rather narrow outlook…a cramped soul. There was in him no geniality and very little humor. ….he did develop a deep-seated dislike, if not hatred, of white people of the United States and of the world.”
It is important to note that by 1950 Du Bois had “established a tradition of openly criticizing black American leadership”…and that he and Woodson also did not have a close relationship Ebony Magazine, founded in the mid-1940s, paid homage to Woodson in the late 1950s:
“His achievements won him many admirers, but few of them became close friends. To Woodson, a stubborn, single-minded individualist, this was not of the slightest importance. He never consciously sought to be liked, never cultivated those habits and personality traits which could endear him to the public. He was, quite possibly, too busy. For decades, it was his custom to devote virtually every waking hour in research, writing and editing. Nothing else mattered. He had not ties to anyone, depended on no one, came as close as any man to being an island ‘intire of it selfe.’ “
John Hope Franklin, considered one of the most respected and established authorities on African American History, wrote “The New Negro History” published first in The Crisis, in February, 1957:
“This (Woodson’s effort) was, perhaps, the most far-reaching and ambitious effort to rewrite history that has ever been attempted in this country. But it was more than an attempt to rewrite history. It was a remarkable attempt to rehabilitate a whole people—to explode racial myths, to establish a secure and respectable place for the Negro in the evolution of the American social order, to develop self-respect and self-esteem among those who had been subjected to the greatest indignities known in the Western world. Finally, it was a valiant attempt to force America to keep faith with herself, to remind her that truth is more praiseworthy than power, and that justice and equality, long the state policy of this nation, should apply to all its citizens and even to the writing of history.”
Negro History Week became Black History Month sometime in the late 1970s and the USPS issued a commemorative stamp of Woodson in 1984 as part of their Black Heritage Series.
On an interesting side note, “Woodson’s views of black women may appear to have been at times ambiguous, but overall they were quite progressive when compared to the views of other black male scholars and historians of his time,” wrote Dagbovie.
“The place of women in Woodson’s mind, scholarship, and program can be interpreted as one of his most important yet largely overlooked contributions to African American history and the historical profession…In his characteristically iconoclastic tone, Woodson argued that black men who opposed the term ‘Negress’ were hypocrites ‘since many of us treat our women as if they were not better than dogs.’”
Woodson rarely discussed black women in his publications in detail and they were not featured extensively in the Journal of Negro History. There was a lack of women writers at the time but at least ten Journal articles authored mostly by men explored dimensions of black women in history.
Black women did have important roles in Woodson’s lifetime in the ASNLH. In 1935, Lucy Harth Smith and Mary McLeod Bethune became the first black women elected to the Association’s executive council. Bethune had a particularly close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and from 1936-1945 was, in one scholar’s estimation, “the pre-eminent race leader at large”.
Dagbovie wrote, “Clearly, Woodson welcomed many black women into the Association as equals in popularizing the past of black people. He supported and praised many black women’s ‘unselfish work’ and publicly celebrated the devotion of many black female teachers and social activists who were committed to promoting African American history. He encouraged and promoted their writings. In fact, at one level Woodson himself was more like the black female amateur historians he praised than his highly specialized fellow male disciples. Like Jane D. Shackelford, Helen A. Whiting, Jessie Roy, Geneva Turner, and countless others, Woodson produced texts for a broad readership. He shared with his female educator counterparts a primary concern for the youth. This interest was something unique among male scholars of his time, many of whom avoided producing scholarship suitable for the masses and focused instead on combating racism in the academy.”
So how do the McKissacks view Woodson?
“As a preeminent historian and the father of what would become Black History Month, it was an extraordinary honor to research and write a biography on Carter G. Woodson. He knew this country's official narrative was incomplete, but Woodson made sure the record would reflect the richness of American history. It is impossible to quantify the positive effects of his scholarship concerning the often ignored or overtly suppressed contributions of African-Americans in building and shaping the United States. Where would we be as a country without Carter G. Woodson?”
Resources used in this blog post include:
Carter G. Woodson : the father of Black history / Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, copyright 2002, Enslow Publishers Inc
The early Black history movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene / Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, copyright 2007.
http://www.mixedracestudies.org/wordpress/?p=13583 which features Woodson’s article Beginnings of Miscegenation of Whites and Blacks