The man behind Black History Month

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

Taking Note Of History

February 05, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood honors the memory of a man who has been called the "Father of Black History Month," which began in 1926 as Negro History Week. Fifty-one years later, it was expanded to include the entire month of February.

Woodson was born the son of former slaves on his father's tobacco farm in New Canton, Va., in 1875, 12 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Woodson, who taught himself reading and math, worked in the West Virginia coalfields before entering high school when he was 20. He graduated two years later.

He was greatly influenced by his father, who could neither read nor write, and who, he wrote, insisted that "learning to accept insult, to compromise on principle, to mislead your fellow man, or to betray your people, is to lose your soul."

Woodson earned a bachelor's degree in literature in 1903 from Berea College in Kentucky, and earned a master's degree in 1907 from the University of Chicago. He attended the Sorbonne University in Paris and earned a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1912.

He taught in the Philippine Islands, and after moving to Washington taught at M Street High School. He later was dean of the school of liberal arts at Howard University and taught at West Virginia State College. He retired from teaching in 1922.

A member of the Niagara Movement, Woodson also became a weekly columnist for Marcus Garvey's Negro World.

He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History - which changed its name in 2002 to The Journal of African American History - the next year.

Through numerous articles in the journal, Woodson challenged the prevailing myths and racial bias of white scholars relating to slavery studies, African history and the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

He supported his research by studying slave records, census data, birth and death certificates, marriage registers, letters, diaries, memoirs and oral histories.

Woodson was the author of many books, including The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, A Century of Negro Migration, The History of the Negro Church and The Negro in Our History.

In his 1933 book, The Mis-education of the Negro, he wrote, "When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his `proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary."

Woodson chose February for Negro History Week to celebrate black history and culture because it was the birth month of two of his heroes: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

"No other single thing," he said, "has done so much to dramatize the achievement of persons of African blood."

In a 1934 letter to the editor of Baltimore's Afro American, he wrote of his aspirations for Negro History Week that the "time will come when the record of black peoples will be learned, not just in a special week, but throughout the year."

"If you read the history of Africa, the history of your ancestors - people of whom you should feel proud - you will realize that they have a history that is worthwhile," he said. "They have traditions that have value of which you can boast and upon which you can base a claim for the right to share in the blessings of democracy."

Woodson, who died in 1950, once told an associate, "Never married. I don't have time to marry. I'm married to my work."

His home at 1538 Ninth St. N.W. in Washington is a National Historic Landmark. A commemorative stamp honoring him was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1984.

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