Carter G. Woodson
In the crowds passing through the great exhibition in Chicago was the future founder of Negro History Week, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born to former slave parents in 1875, Woodson attended high school in West Virginia and, after graduating from the University of Chicago with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, went on to become the second African American, after W.E.B. Du Bois, to be awarded a doctorate in history from Harvard University (in 1912).
That didn’t mean Harvard had been a walk in the park, however, according to Jacqueline Goggin, author of the 1997 book, Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. There, Woodson confronted what had already been so evident in the South when his professor, Edward Channing, challenged Woodson to prove Negroes had a history worth studying. Ever after, black history became Woodson’s mission, and in Chicago 1915, he glimpsed what it could mean to reach thousands of black men and women with the truth.
In fact, according to the ASALH website, Woodson was so moved by what he saw in the Windy City that during his stay, he formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (the precursor to the ASAHL) at a meeting at the Wabash YMCA on Sept. 9, 1915. A year later, Woodson launched the Journal of Negro History. Eventually, he taught in the history departments at Howard University and West Virginia State before returning to Washington, D.C., to popularize black history full-time.
Having previously taught high school, Woodson recognized firsthand the disconnect between what elite scholars like Du Bois were generating at the university level and what teachers and students were facing in the poorest of segregated schools. “[T]o handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching,” Woodson would later write in his 1933 classic, The Mis-Education of the Negro. “It is strange, then, that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it. This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.”
To turn the tide, Woodson first had to research the counter-narrative of black history. “We have a wonderful history behind us,” he encouraged readers in a Jan. 22, 1922, column in the Southern Workman. “It reads like the history of people in an heroic age.” The mission, as he saw it, was to “study this history, and study it with the understanding that we are not, after all, an inferior people, but simply a people who have been set back, a people whose progress has been impeded. We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.”
Aware that he couldn’t pull this off on his own, Woodson recruited a brilliant team of black historians to the association. They included other Harvard men, Rayford Logan, Alrutheus Ambush Taylor, Charles Wesley and others. In his report on the association’s progress for the year 1922 to 1923, Woodson announced that his team was focusing specifically on the history of free blacks before the Civil War and on the story of the negro in Reconstruction. Woodson also had George Dow digging into 18th-century Colonial newspapers in New England while Irene Wright worked on the Fort Mose settlement in Spanish Florida.
Woodson also reported progress on placing the Journal of Negro History “into libraries and schools,” North and South. With support from the Carnegie Corporation and Laurence Spellman Rockefeller Memorial, he was building up his organization’s strength, according to the New Journal and Guide on Dec. 1, 1923.
That publication also reported that Woodson left no stone unturned, even partnering with the American Folklore Society to launch a contest that year for a $200 prize “for the best collection of tales, riddles, proverbs, sayings, and songs, which have been heard at home by Negro students of accredited schools.” Having once been told his people had no history, Woodson was trying to get it all down at a breakneck pace.
Birth of Negro History Week