Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 66: How did Black History Month come into being?
Finding the roots of Black History Month helps explain why, as I recently told Tom Joyner on his morning radio show, every day should be Black History Month. A fully integrated, year-round curriculum reflecting the mutually constitutive histories of the American people was what Black History Month’s founder, Carter G. Woodson, had in mind when he began articulating the counter-narrative to Jim Crow in the early 20th century. That notion also gave me the drive to write, host and produce my latest documentary series for PBS, the six-part, six-hour journey on film, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, covering the 500-year sweep of African-American history from the age of exploration to the presidency of Barack Obama.
Every African-American historian is, in a sense, a descendant of Carter G. Woodson, and though many may question the relevancy of Black History Month today, I believe strongly that for all its potential misuses, we should continue to embrace it as an opportunity to lobby school leaders for the kind of curriculum reform to which he pointed us, but did not achieve, in his lifetime.
The Lincoln Jubilee and National Half-Century Anniversary Exposition of Negro Freedom
According to the website of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Woodson’s legacy organization, the spark for Black History Month was lit by the subject we examined last week: emancipation. In the United States, 1915 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery forevermore. Taking the lead was Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s home state, his final resting place and the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment in February 1865. Fifty years on, Illinois had also become a main destination for waves of black workers leaving the South for better paying jobs in what we now call “the Great Migration.” Binding them together was a hunger for looking back at the odds they had defied.
The focal point of the effort was the Lincoln Jubilee and National Half-Century Anniversary Exposition of Negro Freedom, which launched in Chicago as a mini-Smithsonian Institute. Measuring African Americans’ progress since the Civil War, the massive historical exhibition was housed at the famous Chicago Coliseum between August and September 1915.
According to a recap in the Chicago Defender on Sept. 18 of that year, 100,000 visitors took the tour, with 20,000 attending a celebration there led by the city’s popular white mayor, William Thompson. “If the three hundred years’ experience of this people in this country don’t entitle them to one public holiday,” Thompson wrote in his remarks, “then let us abolish public holidays as foolish and meaningless because this particular one celebrates the emancipation of four million human beings from bondage.” Political pandering? There was some of that. But implicitly Thompson was also making a case for setting aside the anniversary of emancipation as American’s secular analogue to the Exodus, with throngs of black attendees reinforcing the message by singing “John Brown’s Body” to cap off the affair.
Outside the hall—really, across the country—however, the contrasting reality of American race relations couldn’t have been starker. 1915, as you’ll recall from past columns, was the height of the Jim Crow era, a year when, in the American South, there were more than 50 lynchings of blacks alone, and in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson screened the painfully racist and repressive version of Civil War and Reconstruction history depicted in D.W. Griffith’s silent film, Birth of a Nation. For 20 years, “separate but equal” had been enshrined in constitutional law, so that in nearly every sphere, African Americans encountered segregation practices reinforcing their status as second-class citizens.
At the same time, blacks fleeing the South, while facing their share of discrimination in the North, gained a greater degree of social freedom and economic opportunity working in factories than ever before, and the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago only anticipated what was to come in the 1920s with the ascendance of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.
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
Yet, while the needle was moving, Woodson still was struggling to overcome the gap between what cutting-edge college and university research revealed and what was being taught in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Not only did Woodson have to find more creative ways to stimulate demand for the association’s research, he had to reverse what he perceived as an epidemic of inadequacy and low self-esteem among the rising generation.
On one hand, as an editorial in the Chicago Defender recounted in introducing a series of Woodson’s columns on slavery, on Feb. 24, 1923, “A Chicago school-teacher was instructing a class of foreign children in the history of the Civil War. One Italian youngster asked her: ‘What did the Negro do in that war? Didn’t he fight for himself?’ The teacher was abashed, scarcely able to account for this glaring omission in the records that the child had discovered.”
On the other hand, the children of black sharecroppers and factory workers had no way of knowing that “[t]he greatest scholars of today are saying that there is no such thing as race in science and that there is nothing in anthropology or psychology to support such myths as the inferiority or superiority of races.” But “[t]hese truths,” Woodson warned in an article in the Pittsburgh Courier on March 20, 1926, “will have little bearing on the uplift of the Negro, if they are left in the state of academic discussion.”
The solution Woodson landed on was a public relations coup: to “make a way out of no way,” as we titled our episode on the Jim Crow era in the Many Rivers to Cross television series on PBS. “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History has selected the second week in February to inaugurate a celebration of negro history week, for observance in all parts of the United States,” the story ran in the Washington Post on Jan. 24, 1926. “The purpose of the celebration is to popularize the study of the history of the negro, and to obtain support for its promotion.”
“If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” the Post quoted Woodson for the event. Included in the association’s rollout of that first Negro History Week was a prospectus of amazing facts and models for celebration. It was high time, Woodson said in the Pittsburgh Courier on March 20, 1926, to reverse “[c]enturies of perverted education.”
But Why February?
When it launched, Negro History Week centered on the second week of February. And in a Feb. 7, 1942 article in the Philadelphia Tribune, Woodson explained why. “We concentrate on February because it was a significant month in the history of the Negro, Woodson argued. “We concentrate especially upon the second week of February because the most important events of concern to the Negro took place at that time.” They were, chiefly, the birthdays of the great triumvirate, Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), George Washington (Feb. 22) and, in between, Frederick Douglass, who, not knowing his slave birthday, had taken Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. “All three were soldiers for freedom and believed that the Negroes should be liberated,” Woodson explained. In other words, he was interested in carving out a different kind of Mount Rushmore in American hearts and minds—one with white and black faces.
But in no way was Negro History Week meant to be limited to the great men of history, Woodson added; it also was to include lesser-known figures and events with February anniversaries—from Sen. Hiram Revels taking his oath of office at the Capitol in 1870 (Feb. 25) to the establishment of the Dominican Independence Day (Feb. 27) to the day in 1776 when George Washington sent a letter to the poet Phillis Wheatley acknowledging her “genius” (Feb. 28).
Reporting on the first-year rollout in the Journal of Negro History in April 1926, Woodson shared the following feedback with readers: “A teacher said: ‘The celebration improved my children a hundred per cent. I wish we could have Negro History Week throughout the year. Let the good work go on.’” Catch that? “Throughout the year”!
And “the good work” did “go on.” And, over the next two decades, Negro History Week caught on, thanks to the support Woodson received from black churches, clubs and civic organizations. By 1933, the Depression years, his association was reporting a slew of invitations they had received to speak at black and white schools deep in the heart of Texas as well as the creation of “wide awake courses dealing with every aspect of Negro history and life,” according to the New Journal and Guide on Dec. 23, 1933.
After World War II, which followed, Negro History Week created a venue for returning black servicemen and women to tell their stories (see, for example, “Colored Wacs Tributed During Negro History Week: Tells Of Role Corps Played During War,” in the New Journal and Guide, Feb. 22, 1947). Not long after, according to the ASALH website, African Americans in my home state of West Virginia expanded the celebration to Negro History Month.
The next move in the evolution was from grassroots organizing to nationwide standardization. In 1948, a new “Negro History Kit” was “prepared by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, designed for use in communities with few or no library facilities,” the New York Amsterdam News reported on Dec. 4. As part of the rollout, a 32-page “Negro History Pamphlet” was offered at the low cost of $2 and included everything a teacher might need: six poems by Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson and Mavis B. Mixon; three orations by Frederic Douglass, Rep. Robert Brown Elliot and Booker T. Washington; a list of plays; a program for each of the five school days of Negro History Week; bibliographical information for various student projects; and 17 photos for display. It was what you might call “Black History Month in a Box.”
Black History Month
The problem was that, over time, it began to feel like Negro History Week was confined to a box without successfully advancing the goal of integrating the year-round curriculum with what Woodson had called “the Negro in history” in his 1928 book, Negro Makers of History. Worse, when Woodson died at the age of 74 in 1950, there was a leadership vacuum at the front of the cause before the civil rights movement itself had taken off. And by the time students like me came along in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the fallout from the King assassination and the rise of the black power movement made Negro History Week feel like a relic of a second-class past—compartmentalized and co-opted.
According to the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 7, 1972, some “balk[ed]” at the term “Negro.” Others thought it was silly to include Lincoln’s birthday, when it didn’t always fall in same week as Douglass’ birthday. Among those interviewed, Mattie Evans of the Progressive Black Associates said black history was “too big for that … This is not to discredit the idea, but time dictates that something different happen. We’ve moved to a point now where one week is not enough. We need to take the spotlight off the one week and put it on the year around.” Joe Conner, vice chairman of the Black Students Union at the University of Southern California, added, “Every day of our lives should be black and we shouldn’t have to emphasize it one day.”
The compromise the country reached wasn’t the reform it needed. Instead, in 1976, America’s bicentennial year, Negro History Week went national, with the word “Negro” changed to “Black” and the week stretched out to a month of activities, with full support from President Gerald Ford. But in the years that followed, hearing stories from the frontlines of elementary, junior high and high schools only deepened skepticism among black historians. For a number of overworked teachers, we learned, Black History Month felt like another frustrating mandate handed down from on high. For appearances’ sake, they thought they could satisfy it with a Harriet Tubman essay or drawing contest here, a showing or two of Roots there, a flashy display board of “famous firsts” like George Washington Carver here and there, without giving serious thought to how those same faces had impacted the day-to-day curriculum they were teaching March through January. In years when the Olympics fell in February, Black History Month was all but lost in the madness, and the designation of MLK Day as a federal holiday in 1986 only seemed to confuse the matter more.
The irony was that long before his death Carter Woodson had addressed this very concern in an article in the New Journal and Guide on Dec. 23, 1933. “He who regards the celebration of Negro History Week as an effort to crowd into seven days intensive study all that should be learned by the Negro during the year is either uninformed as to what the celebration means or is too biased to tell the truth,” Woodson made plain.
The challenge, of course, was that “public authorities” in charge of school curricula around the country decided what was and wasn’t taught. As Woodson conceived it, Negro History Week was meant to stimulate greater awareness and, from it, a greater lobbying effort of those same public authorities. As he put it, “The chief aim of the celebration is so to exhibit the works of the Negroes and dramatize their achievements as to induce educational authorities to incorporate into the course of study the same sort of treatment of the Negro that we have of other elements of the American population.”
Last summer, I made no secret about my ongoing concerns, both in this column in the lead-up to the anniversary of the March on Washington and when I launched my PBS series in the fall. We may be “a nation within a nation,” as the 19th-century black abolitionist Martin Delaney declared, but, from slavery to freedom, our 500-year story is indivisible from that of the nation. And to leave it out on any given day (or to carve it out for “special” display on only 28 or 29 days in February) is to distort our common past while robbing those who will shape the future of an expansive archive of resiliency and hope.
However, until we achieve our goal of year-round integration of the American history curriculum in our schools (an even greater challenge, given that history is now squeezed into a Common Core dominated by science, math, and engineering), we should continue to leverage Black History Month to spotlight new research (and the scholars publishing that work, as we did in Many Rivers to Cross), and to measure our progress in fulfilling Dr. Woodson’s noble vision. A good start would be to ask each other the same questions Woodson put to his readers in the Pittsburgh Courier on Jan. 15, 1948. During Negro History week, he wrote, perhaps thinking back to the great emancipation anniversary in Chicago in 1915, “every Negro should ask the question as to whether his race is better off today than it was in 1865? We are free now we contend; but what is freedom?”
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.