Thursday, February 03, 2005

Highlighting Carter G. Woodson for Black History Month

[This post was compiled by Demetrika and myself.]

Black History Month wasn't always a month. It was originally a week. And though some people may or may not be familiar with Carter G. Woodson and his accomplishments (1875-1950), he deserves highlighting.

From Bio-Bibliography Dorothy E. Lyles:

Carter G. Woodson was born in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia, to former slaves Anne Eliza (Riddle) and James Henry Woodson. Although his parents could neither read nor write, Carter G. Woodson credits his father for influencing the course of his life. His father, he later 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."

From "Carter G. Woodson, Father of Black History" by Lerone Bennett, Jr.:

At 17, the young man who was called by history to reveal black history was an untutored coal miner. At 19, after teaching himself the fundamentals of English and arithmetic, he entered high (secondary) school and mastered the four-year curriculum in less than two years.
At 22, after two-thirds of a year at Berea College in West Virginia, he returned to the coal mines and studied Latin and Greek between trips to the mine shafts. He then went on to the University of Chicago, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees, and Harvard University, where he became the second black to receive a doctorate in history.

From "Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson and the Observance of African History" by Runoko Rashidi:

Dr. Woodson was a member of the Niagara Movement and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey's weekly publication--the Negro World. He was the founder, in Chicago in 1915, of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In the same year he founded the Journal of Negro History--a publication still in existence. As a contributing writer for the the Journal of Negro History, Woodson wrote more than a hundred articles and 125 book reviews.
Carter Godwin Woodson was the founder of Associated publishers, founder and editor of the Negro History Bulletin, and the author of more than thirty books. Probably Woodson's best known book is The Mis-Education of the Negro, originally published in 1933 and still relevant today. In the Mis-Education of the Negro Dr. Woodson stated that:

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.

From "Why Black History Month?" by Sean Gonsalves:

Woodson believed the study of black history, using the tools of scholarly research and writing, could serve a dual purpose. It could be used to counter white racial chauvinism, which was used to rationalize the oppression of black people in America.
The distortions and deletions in the American historical record as it pertains to race matters, Woodson believed, was detrimental to the health of a nation whose inherent promise is life, liberty and justice for all.
Perhaps more importantly, Woodson knew that in a society where black intelligence and moral worth is incessantly demeaned and devalued, studying black history would serve as a psychological defense shield for black students against the assaults of white supremacy.
So he embarked on a quest to establish a national celebration of black heritage. In 1926, Negro History Week was born.
"Besides building self-esteem among blacks, (Black History Week) would help eliminate prejudice among whites," Woodson concluded.

From "Carter Godwin Woodson" (a profile available at African Within):

The broad spectrum of the life of Africans in America was of central interest to Woodson. He studied all facets of their experiences and rich cultural contributions. These included myths, patterns of migration, roles as wage earners, entrance into medicine, work in rural America, inventions and writings, and their unique history. In 1926, during the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance, he launched a movement to observe "Negro History Week." Woodson felt that an annual celebration of the achievements of the African American should occur during the month of February, since both the gifted abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln were born in that month. In the 1960s what was once only a week of recognizing the outstanding achievements of Americans of African heritage to science, literature, and the arts became transformed into "Black History Month."

From Afro-American Almanac's entry on Woodson:

Dr. Woodson was often ridiculed for his efforts. At one time, large foundations were encouraged to withdraw funding of over $100,000 in support of the ASNLH, which evolved into the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASNLH). Taking full burden of his cause, with perseverance and vision, Dr. Woodson researched, sorted and compiled voluminous information about the American Negro. The ASNLH held its first meeting in Chicago in 1915. The following year, from this association sprung the publication of the Journal of Negro History, a scientific quarterly. Dr. Woodson served as director and editor of this publication until his death.
From 1919 to 1920, Dr. Woodson served as dean of the School of Liberal Arts and head of the graduate faculty at Howard University. For the next two years, he was dean of West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In 1922, he retired from college teaching and spent the rest of his life writing, editing and promoting Black history. On April 3, 1950, Dr. Carter G. Woodson died. Although he produced no offspring, he fathered the recording of a people’s history and nurtured its growth and development into recognition and acceptance.

From Ebony's obituary of Woodson:

Looking back on this pageant of endurance and creativity, W.E.B. DuBois said that Woodson's achievements were staggering by any standard, adding: "He literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week [now a month] in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon life, thought and action in the United States. I know of no one man who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration."

From that obit, here's a quote from Woodson:

"When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1909 and began my research," he said late, "the people there laughed at me and especially at my 'hayseed' clothes. At that time I didn't have enough money to pay for a haircut. When I, in my poverty, had the 'audacity' to write a book on the Negro, the 'scholarly' people of Washington laughed at it."

Creative Quotations has a page of Woodson's quotes. Here's one:

Truth must be dug up from the past and presented to the circle of scholastics in scientific form and then through stories and dramatizations that will permeate our educational system.

Bob Bankard has a strong piece in PhillyBurbs about Woodson and the importance of Black History Month (also, if you click on the link, you can see the Carter Godwin Woodson stamp):

The truth is, Woodson began the yearly observance as 'Negro History Week' in 1926, and specifically picked the week inclusive of February 14th, the birthdate of Fredrick Douglass. It was not until 1976, nearly 30 years after Woodson's death, that the observance was expanded to 'Black History Month'.
Douglass had a great impact on Woodson's life - he was a contemporary, certainly one of the leading lights of Black Culture in the late 1800s. Woodson was first a pupil of, then the principal of Douglass High School in Fayette. Certainly Woodson could empathise with Douglass' past, it being the same past as his own parents, as well as the toil of self-taught learning, which he had himself endured. It should not come as a suprise that Carter Woodson should choose to so honor a man who was in many ways his role model.
Is there a need for a 'Black History Month' now? As long as one recognises that there is 'Black History', absolutely. Even if the text books were completely homogeneous, a spotlight upon the contributions of one facet - any facet - of American Culture enriches our understanding of the whole.

The Long Island University has "African Americans : Books and Personalities" which is a great resource of Woodwin and books by him as well as books written about him.