When Carter Woodson helped found Negro History Week in 1926, he had already accomplished quite a lot.
When Carter Woodson helped found Negro History Week in 1926, he had already accomplished quite a lot. The son of former slaves, he had graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, earned a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, becoming the second African-American to do so. W.E.B. DuBois was the first, but Woodson is the only offspring of former slaves to receive a P in history from an American institution.
He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and their publication, “The Journal of Negro History,” to support and encourage research into the history, culture and accomplishments of Negroes, as we were then called. He was particularly interested in educating young Blacks about their history.
"If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated," Woodson wrote in "The Mis-Education of the Negro." He sponsored research, worked with other historians, conducted interviews with hundreds of Blacks about their personal and family histories, et al.
Woodson was not the only one; the 20th century ushered in intense interest in documenting Black life. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1915 brought thousands of people to the Chicago Coliseum to see exhibits and displays on Black life. Out of that Woodson got Black schools, churches, organizations and newspapers to include ways of getting information about Black history to people. Negro History Week caught on, went across the country and eventually moved into the regular school curriculum of more and more public elementary schools. When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, we had Negro History Week observances at Dunlap Elementary School in West Philly.
Of course, these observances had become mostly about famous Black people who had accomplished great things, which was not Woodson’s desired look at the Negro in history. But while I overdosed on George Washington Carver and Phillis Wheatley in school, I had Ebony and Jet magazines and the Philadelphia Tribune at home, Black-owned and Black themed publications, that had listened to Woodson and provided that wider view.
Things have changed over the decades, of course. The organization Woodson founded is now called The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), we are no longer called “Negroes,” and there is now a federally recognized “Black History Month” instead of just a week. There have been more scholastic and scientific published research, many more books, films, newspaper and magazine articles and more. There are even numerous Black life-centered museums and official Black Heritage sites across the country, including museums looking at Black WWII fighter pilots, firefighters, cowboys, pioneers, et al. There are also webpages turning up interesting and previously hidden or unknown aspects of Black History.
This is particularly relevant now in the wake of all that happened in 2020. It became clear that there is a lot Americans do not know, see or recognize about Black life, and there is now a more conscious effort to change that. Over the past months, web-searching and friends e-mailing have brought to my attention some new information and insights, so my understanding and knowledge continue to grow.
History is never stale and “finished.” It always fascinating, often changing and evolving. I invite you to spend some time investigating web sites, museum sites, etc., to learn about aspects of Black life with which you are/were unfamiliar or unaware. I invite us all to make this a month more in line with Woodson’s goal of discovering, exploring and looking at who we as Americans are.
There are plenty of places to see within the Philadelphia region and nationwide. Surprises and new learnings await, sometimes painful, sometimes wonderful. Let’s make this Black History Month a month of wonder and discovery.
John Colgan-Davis is a longtime Mt. Airy resident, retired public school teacher and harmonica star for the rockin' blues band, Dukes of Destiny.