February is Black History Month (if you’re in the UK and reading this, make that October!). West Virginia educator Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, was pivotal in its development.
Woodson (1874-1950) was a graduate and later principal of Douglass High School in Huntington, WV, a dean at West Virginia State, and was the second African American to earn Harvard Ph.D. (1912).
Dr. Woodson authored numerous scholarly books and magazine articles on the positive contributions of blacks to the development of America. He reached out to schools and the general public through the establishment of several key organizations, and founded Negro History Week (precursor to Black History Month).
On September 9, 1915, Woodson and four others organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The purposes of the organization, in Woodson’s words, were “the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, the study of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in the field, and the promotion of harmony between the races by acquainting the one with the other.”
In the beginning — and for a long time thereafter — the Chicago-based association was a one-man show with Woodson producing, directing, writing, organizing, and providing most of the money. Even after the organization was launched, he said later, “few of the members were anxious to assume any pecuniary responsibility and therefore urged further delay before undertaking to carry out the program.”
On January 1, 1916, wary of said delays, and without consulting the Executive Council, Woodson published at his own expense the first issue of the Journal of Negro History. This naturally enraged the Executive Council, and one member, the only woman, resigned in protest.
Although Woodson alienated some friends and supporters, he succeeded by the power of example and the sheer force of his personality in creating a structure which published books, funded researchers and shaped the thinking of large masses of people. In 1920, he organized Associated Negro Publishers “to make possible the publication and circulation of valuable books on colored people not acceptable to most publishers.”
In 1922, after serving as dean of Howard University and West Virginia State, he left the teaching profession and gave himself body and soul to the movement. In the same year, he published one of the major books in the history of Black America, The Negro In Our History. On February 7, 1926, he organized Negro History Week, which was expanded in 1976 to Black History Month. This was perhaps his proudest accomplishment. “No other single thing,” he said, “has done so much to dramatize the achievement of persons of African blood.”
Dr. Woodson often said that he hoped the time would come when Negro History Week would be unnecessary; when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country. Whether it’s called Black History, Negro History, Afro-American History, or African American History, his philosophy has made this field of study a legitimate and acceptable area of intellectual inquiry.
In honor of all the work that Dr. Carter G. Woodson did to promote the study of African American History, an ornament of him hangs on the White House’s Christmas tree each year.