Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of African American History Month

The New-York Historical Society and the DiMenna Children’s History Museum celebrate African American history year-round, but we, and most other cultural institutions, pay special homage in February. Why?

Charles Alston drew this cartoon of Dr. Woodson for the National Archives and Records Administration in 1943.

Charles Alston drew this cartoon of Dr. Woodson for the National Archives and Records Administration in 1943.

African American (or Black) History Month started with one man: a historian, author, and teacher named Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950). Dr. Woodson was the child of formerly enslaved people and did not to attend school regularly until the age of 20. In a short time, he earned a high school diploma in West Virginia, then a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. In 1912, he went on to become the second African American ever to earn a PhD from Harvard University.

Dr. Woodson dedicated his life to promoting knowledge about the roles p-ople of African descent had played in world, and particularly American, history. The New York Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library holds a 1927 edition of one of his most important books, The Negro in our History, first published in 1922. Although considered degrading now, “negro” was a term African Americans used to describe themselves in the early part of the twentieth century. This book charts the history of peoples of African descent in the United States from colonial enslavement to the 1920s.

This Irving Browning photograph captures West 130th street, part of Harlem, between 1920 and 1935, during the infancy of “Negro History Week.” Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

This Irving Browning photograph captures West 130th street, part of Harlem, between 1920 and 1935, during the infancy of “Negro History Week.” Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History ( now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), located in Washington D.C. In 1926, Dr. Woodson and the Association began to promote a week-long celebration of African American history, dubbed Negro History Week, that would coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (February 12 and February 14, respectively). Dr. Woodson wanted to move people from marking the achievements of two great men to marking the achievements of an entire people. In a talk to Hampton Institute students he said ““We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” [1]

Negro History Week found immediate success. The 1920s saw the dawn of what African American intellectuals of the time called the “New Negro.” The “New Negro” was an educated, cultured, literary ideal that African Americans were aspiring to during a time when the black middle class was growing, particularly in American cities like New York. This ideal was closely linked with figures like W.E.B. Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance in general. African Americans across the country took an active interest in their history, forming clubs that wanted to celebrate Negro History Week.

Reginald Marsh, Harlem, Tuesday at the Savoy, 1932, Private Collection. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Savoy Ballroom was a hot spot during the Harlem Renaissance, where conversations about the “New Negro” would have taken place.

Reginald Marsh, Harlem, Tuesday at the Savoy, 1932, Private Collection. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Savoy Ballroom was a hot spot during the Harlem Renaissance, where conversations about the “New Negro” would have taken place.

Despite the success of Negro History Week, Dr. Woodson would not live to see it become the nationally recognized month that we know. It wasn’t until the heat of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s that some college campuses began celebrating black history for a full month. In 1976, Gerald Ford proclaimed Black History Month a federally recognized heritage month as a part of our nation’s bicentennial celebrations. In his declaratory speech he remarked:

“We are grateful to [Dr. Carter G. Woodson] today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.

Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens.

In celebrating Black History Month, we can … seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” [2]

Today, Black History Month has its supporters and also its critics. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is part of Howard University and continues to promote Black History Month. They are responsible for setting an annual theme for the month. This year’s theme is “Civil Rights in America.” Critics of African American history month say that it separates African American history from American history, when in fact there is no separation. Daryl Michael Scott, Professor of History at Howard University, has studied Dr. Woodson’s life and career and believes that

“Woodson never viewed black history as a one-week affair. He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. In the same vein, he established a black studies extension program to reach adults throughout the year. It was in this sense that blacks would learn of their past on a daily basis that he looked forward to the time when an annual celebration would no longer be necessary.” [3]

The New-York Historical Society honors African American history in February but also seeks to do so year-round, as it does with women’s history and the histories of all the racial, ethnic and cultural groups that make America what it is. Like Dr. Woodson, we encourage the public to learn about and honor history-makers great and small. In fighting for this, Dr. Woodson made history, so today, in this blog post, we honor him.

[1] Scott, Daryl M. “History of Black History Month.” History of Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

[2] “President Gerald R. Ford’sMessage on the Observance of Black History Month.” President Gerald R. Ford’s Message on the Observance of Black History Month. February 10, 1976. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

[3] Scott, Daryl M. “History of Black History Month.” History of Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

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