Black History Month: The Carter Woodson Legacy
Feb 01, 2018 08:30AM ● Published by Jason Huddle
Black History Month: The Carter Woodson Legacy
"The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up.”
- Henry Louis Gates
February is a special time to celebrate significant moments and people leading up to the Civil Right Movement and beyond, as well as educating today’s children about the struggles of those willing to take a stand for reform.
Carter Godwin Woodson is considered the Father of Black History. Born in New Canton, Virginia, in 1875, his parents were former slaves. Because Woodson’s family was large – he had six siblings – and economically poor, he had to work as a sharecropper and in the coal mines of West Virginia to help support his family rather than attend school regularly.
Still, Woodson taught himself the basics of school instruction. At the age of 20, he was able to focus on his education full-time, earning his diploma from Douglass High School in just two years; he became a teacher there.
“In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903,” according to Wikipedia. “From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines. Later, he attended the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African-American (after W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a doctorate. After earning the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, and served there as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.”
As a historian, Woodson saw a lack of chronicled African-American history. This prompted him to partner with Alexander L. Jackson in the writing of The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, published in 1915.
According to Wikipedia, “He noted that African-American contributions ‘were overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’ Race prejudice, he 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.’ ”
Woodson’s experiences in Chicago – staying at the Wabash Avenue YMCA and immersing himself in the inner-city Bronzeville neighborhood – also saw him founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (also in 1915). It was later renamed the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Its primary goals were to bring African-American historical contributions to the forefront as well as the education of black children.
“Woodson believed that education and increasing social and professional contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism, and he promoted the organized study of African-American history partly for that purpose,” Wikipedia says. “He would later promote the first Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in 1926, forerunner of Black History Month.”
Woodson decided to celebrate Negro History Week annually during the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. He promoted his idea to schools and organizations in the hopes of creating the study of African-American history.
On February 1, 1970, Kent University’s Black United Students and Black educators took it a step further and founded Black History Month. President Gerald Ford made it official in 1976 and it’s now celebrated across the U.S.
Ironically, Woodson’s desire to separate African-American history from American history was met unfavorably by some of his own constituents. “Thus, Woodson’s efforts to get black culture and history into the curricula of institutions, even historically black colleges, were often unsuccessful,” Wikipedia says. “Today, African-American studies have become specialized fields of study in history, music, culture, literature and other areas.”
Up until his death in 1950, at 74, Woodson remained an activist and writer, penning a weekly column in Negro World. He also wrote A Century of Negro Migration in 1918, The History of the Negro Church in 1921, The Negro in Our History in 1922 and Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933.
“Mis-Education – with its focus on the Western indoctrination system and African-American self-empowerment – is a particularly noted work and has become regularly course adopted by college institutions,” according to biography.com.
Today, Black History Month focuses on and honors the efforts of African-Americans; each year has a theme. This year’s is African-Americans in Times of War – men and women who have fought for our freedom in the U.S. military.
According to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), “The 2018 theme commemorates the centennial of the end of the First World War in 1918, and explores the complex meanings and implications of this international struggle and its aftermath. Those very concepts provide a broad, useful framework for focusing on the roles of African-Americans in every American war, from the Revolutionary War Era to that of the present War against Terrorism.
“Times of War inevitably provides the framework for many stories related to African-American soldiers and sailors, veterans and civilians. This is a theme filled with paradoxes of valor and defeat, of civil rights opportunities and setbacks, of struggles abroad and at home, of artistic creativity and repression, and of catastrophic loss of life and the righteous hope for peace.”
Chiff.com adds, “During World War II, more than 2.5 million black men registered for the draft and 1 million served as draftees or volunteers in every branch of the armed forces. A decade before the first glimmers of the American Civil Rights Movement, most black men were assigned to segregated combat groups. Even so, more than 12,000 black men who served in the segregated 92nd Division received citations and were decorated for ‘extraordinary heroism’ on the battlefield.”
Then, on January 12 of this year, U.S. President Donald Trump declared Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday. What this basically means is that a day – January 15, in this case – has been recognized by the U.S. government.
According to wikipedia, “Every year on a U.S. federal holiday, non-essential federal government offices are closed, and every federal employee is paid for the holiday. Private-sector employees required to work on a legal holiday may receive holiday pay in addition to their ordinary wages.”
The White House posted a proclamation on its website – whitehouse.gov – that said, in part, “Dr. King once said: ‘We refuse to believe there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this Nation.’ We must work together to carry forward the American Dream, to ensure it is within reach not only for our children, but for future generations. As your President, I am committed to building and preserving a Nation where every American has opportunities to achieve a bright future. That is why we are expanding apprenticeship programs, preparing Americans for the jobs of our modernizing economy. We are also working every day to enhance access to capital and networks for minority and women entrepreneurs. With all we do, we aim to empower Americans to pursue their dreams.
“Importantly, in paying tribute to Dr. King, we are reminded that the duty lies with each of us to fulfill the vision of his life’s work. Let us use our time, talents and resources to give back to our communities and help those less fortunate than us. Particularly today, let us not forget Dr. King’s own tireless spirit and efforts, as we work, celebrate and pray alongside people of all backgrounds. As one people, let us rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans, and as people who share a common humanity.”
There are celebrations of black history across North Carolina year-round, not just in February (see sidebar for a selection), but be sure to also check out Cabarrus Magazine’s Calendar of Events for a listing of special local celebrations taking place this month.
Article by: Kim Cassell
Photos courtesy: History.com and Greensboro CVB