Carter G. Woodson was born in New Canton, Va., and raised in West Virginia, the son of former slaves. Getting education and using it to better the conditions of Black Americans was part of his cultural upbringing. Deprived of opportunities to go to public school, he educated himself until the age of 20, then attended and graduated from high school in a little less than two years. He then found a way to obtain acceptance to Berea College in Kentucky while working in a coal mine.
From there he went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, obtaining a master’s degree, then gained admission to Harvard University. He graduated with a doctorate in 1912, and became the second African American to do so (preceded by W.E.B. Dubois in 1895). Carter joined the first Black fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi, and later also joined Omega Psi Phi. The former was established as an exclusive professional, networking organization, rather than as a college-based Black Greek-letter group, so most members were also affiliated with collegiate fraternities, including Dr. Martin L. King, who later was a member of both the Sigmas and Alpha Phi Alpha. Arthur Ashe was a Sigma and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, etc. W.E.B. Dubois was also a Sigma.
The Sigmas established the tradition of the boule, the exclusive, elite “council of noblemen” it was called. So, Carter, as a professionally trained educator, teacher and historian, had every reason to be a “Black stuffed shirt,” and tend to the business of polishing his own career apple.
Instead, he chose the more difficult path. He put his educational influence to work, founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915, and the Journal of Negro History the next year. He quarreled with and admonished those who would not challenge racism and disrespect, saying, “I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me.”
Graduating from Harvard is big stuff for Black folks now, but then it was absolutely incredible and recognized as the pinnacle of educational achievement. From the farm to beyond the big house, Woodson could easily have rested on his laurels with that singular achievement. Fortunately for all of us, he did not.
Establishing himself as a role model for a multitude of activist educators to follow, Woodson lived the answer to the question, ‘What good is a top notch education unless one can put it to good use helping people?’ In his day, education was seen as the key to Black freedom and uplift.
In 1926, Woodson and the members of the ASNLH, created “Negro History Week,” to be observed during the second week of February to honor both the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12). The purpose of “Negro History Week” was to correct the impact of most historians who relentlessly overlooked, ignored and even suppressed the historical contributions of African Americans to this nation’s development in history textbooks and in the teachers who use them. “Race prejudice,” Woodson concluded, “is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”
“Negro History Week” was created because Black Americans and their accomplishments were largely left out of the educational curricula of that time. Where Blacks were mentioned, according to Woodson, it was usually through very demeaning imagery or discriminatory ideas. The week, however, was not created to be permanent. It was seen as a spur towards the eventual proper inclusion of Black American history into general American history. Spreading knowledge and research about Blacks and their accomplishments and potential was seen as a strategy that would benefit everyone.
During the 1970s, several college and university student groups, especially the Black United Students Association at Kent State University, began advocating and implementing Negro History Week into Black History Month. In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford officially designated February as Black History Month, as part of the American Bicentennial Celebration and that sobriquet continues today.
Has that long-term celebration done much good, one must ask?
Most Black History Month celebrations today have devolved into focusing on a handful of “Black firsts and a parade of Black icons,” particularly those from the civil rights era. Woodson’s broader idea, however, seemed to be to use this special time every year to remind Black Americans and the world that it had been the strong family values, work ethic, sense of individual responsibility, spirit of entrepreneurship and sustained dignity within African American culture and history that had carried them through all of their trials and tribulations and was worthy of being studied, emulated and retained.
To Woodson, burgeoning historical awareness of survival and accomplishment should inspire Black Americans to avoid becoming dependent on government to do for them what they could do for themselves, and if White Americans knew the true history of Blacks in America and in Africa, it would help overcome negative stereotyping and racism.
Neither of those goals has yet to be accomplished. Black self-reliance, according to most current sources, is on the decline, and racial stereotyping is still par for the course daily in America (with real life consequences in Ferguson, New York and Los Angeles, among others).
Yes, America twice elected an African American president, an achievement likely never contemplated by Woodson, but accomplished during the life of the ASAALH organization he founded. Perhaps the yearly celebration of Black History Month influenced that result, and perhaps not. President Barack Obama, it is to be noted, is a Harvard grad, as was Woodson.
There are now commercially available and successful Black History crossword puzzles and board games, a Black History Month app for computers, well-done films and documentaries available to the public, including YouTube selections, Netflix features, etc. The U.S. Postal Service has done more than 100 special edition stamps of famous Black Americans. There are major TV series that depict Black life and engagements, although too often to the detriment of positive role models for Black Americans or a reduction of negative stereotypes about Black folks for everyone.
Educationally, there are 20 major state school boards that decide on the public school textbooks for the students in those states, with Texas and California being the most influential because of their book budgets. The Texas State Board recently voted to reduce Black representation in the state textbooks, while increasing the coverage of slavery and slave masters as positive contributors to American life. The Texas books will still include a handful of Black individuals, like Dr. King, as worthy of mention, but the board also decided to include sections on the Black Panther Party and other dissident groups depicted as violent alternatives to the Civil Rights Movement.
In California, the state with the most inclusivist textbooks, while Blacks are prominently mentioned repeatedly, too much information remains misrepresented and/or distorted. California’s allowance of and advocacy of slavery, for example, in spite of the state’s outlawing of the practice when it came into the Union, is poorly covered, as are many more things. Black Americans in California, and other states, have not yet focused enough energy on getting elected onto the state boards and other agencies that make the decisions about educational content, so those choices have been left up to folk who do not have the cultural interests nor political need to be too radical in their educational inclusivism.
Woodson’s dream to have Black History (and Morgan Freeman’s recent demand for this) to simply merge respectfully into regular American History has not been realized, and probably will not be for the foreseeable future. History has never been neutral, and politics still determines too much of it.
For the record, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) recently voted to require an ethnic studies course for high school graduation. That should help to move further down the road.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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