‘We Are Going Back to that Beautiful History’ – The Earliest Origins of Black History Month

We have observed Black History Month for over forty years in the United States. The month of February has been selected as a time for us to compensate for an education which likely neglected the contributions, trials and advances made by black Americans.

 

Though Black History Month became official in 1976, it actually grew out of Negro History Week, started in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, on of the first black Americans to earn a PhD. To say that he was from humble beginnings would be a gross understatement. Dr. Woodson was born in Virginia on December 19, 1875. His parents, James and Eliza,  both former slaves found little opportunity for advancement in Buckingham County. For most of his childhood, the young Carter had little formal schooling. It wasn’t until he was seventeen that he ventured more than ten miles away from his home.

His first train ride, taking him far from his birthplace, was with his older brother, who was moving to Huntington, West Virginia. They had heard that a high school was opening in that town specifically for black students. His parents moved themselves and the rest of the family the following year. 1Kelly Miller An Estimate of Carter G. Woodson … (Washington, DC, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1926).

The Education of Carter Woodson

When he was not in class, he was at work, helping to provide for his family. “I once drove a garbage wagon in my home town,” remembered Dr. Woodson in 1920, “toiled for six years as a coal miner, often saw the day when my mother had her breakfast and did not know where she would find her dinner. Many a time it was necessary for me to retire early on Saturday night that my mother might wash out the only clothing that I had that I might have something clean to wear the following day.” 2As printed in Pero Gaglo Dagbovie Carter G. Woodson in Washington,: The Father of Black History (The History Press, 2014).

After receiving his high school diploma in 1897 with but two years of study, he paid back his education by becoming a teacher in another school in West Virginia. Less than two years later, he returned to Huntington, hired now as a principal for his alma mater. But he understood that his high school education could only get him so far.

Between sessions, he studied at Berea College in Kentucky, the first racially integrated post-secondary school in the South. Founded by the radical abolitionist John Gregg Fee , by 1903, Woodson had earned a Bachelors degree in Literature.

For the next decade, Woodson would travel the world both educating and receiving further education. By 1912, he would earn his doctorate from Harvard – the first black American born of slave parentage to do so. 3Dr. Woodson was the second Black American to ever earn a doctorate. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first.

Mis-Education

Through his career as a professional educator (the account of which is too broad for this format), Dr.Woodson became convinced that the entire black race in America was being “mis-educated. Black students in America were learning places and names, dates and events. But they were also taught a subtle system of oppression.

Negro History Week, 1927. Pittsburgh Courier.

“The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples.

“For example, the philosophy and ethics resulting from our education system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap, and to kill the oppressed.

“Negros daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained, and during the last three generations of their nominal freedom they have done practically nothing to change it. Their pouting and resolutions indulged in by a few of the race have been of little avail.” 4Dr. Carter G. Woodson Mis-Education of the Negro (1933) from the introduction. This book is available to read for free online here and as a PDF.

Negro History Week – A More Perfect Record

The first whispers of a Negro History Week began appearing in 1925. At this point, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by Dr. Woodson, was a decade old. He had already studied Black Education and published several books and papers on the subject. He had begun the Journal of Negro History, a scholarly periodical still published today.

It was in that year that Dr. Woodson decided that despite his promotion of black history, few formal institutions were taking notice. He had attempted Negro History and Literature Week the year before, but wanted an even greater reception.

Starting in November of 1925, Dr. Woodson began promoting Negro History Week in the black press. He had selected the second week in February – coinciding with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

One of the earliest such promotions came during the Thanksgiving season, running in the Pittsburgh Courier.

“This history of the Negro is one long series of labors with no one to chronicle them. All other races, except the Negro, have been given wide publicity, and their achievements have been given not a little subtle advertisement. The negro has been studiously forgotten, lest he leave a record of value.” 5The Pittsburgh Courier; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sat, Nov 28, 1925 – Page 16. Link.

The short piece reminded the black audience that “our achievements have been written in sand.” Negro History Week was not simply for the study of black history, but for the recording. Dr. Woodson was asking them “to record our achievements; to leave behind us a history which shall portray truthfully the life of the group.”

He understood that to portray that life, the black community had to understand and write their own history – nobody would do this for them. “If we had a reliable and connected record of all our achievements, how much more commanding would be our rank as a race of people,” he urged.

He wrote in closing:

“Negro History Week has been suggested to stimulate interest in a more perfect record of ourselves. Let us lend ourselves to our own cause, and give expression to the achievements of a stalwart race hitherto ignored and unsung.” 6Ibid

Overcoming Race Prejudice

It was an achievement that Negro History Week was celebrated at all. 1926 would go on to see over two lynchings of black Americans each month. 7According to the Tuskegee Institute. This figure is likely low, but not too far off. Link. In many ways, this was a trial run. Dr. Woodson wished to see how this idea would play out through the rest of the nation. He called it “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken” by his organization.

Woodson was concerned not only with the education of black students, but with white as well. He was no supporter of segregation, understanding that race prejudice “is not something inherent in human nature.” Education in general came mostly from tradition, and it was this tradition that fostered the notion that “the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

“The doctrine has been thoroughly drilled into the whites and the Negroes have learned well the lesson themselves; for many of them look upon other races as superior and accept the status of recognized inferiority.” 8Carter G. Woodson “Negro History Week.” The Journal of Negro History 11, no. 2 (1926): 240.

Every Church Lodge and Club

Dr. Woodson was concerned that black history was being taught only in the halls of academia. Because of this, he appealed “to every church, lodge, and club in each of the several communities of the nation with a Negro constituency, to hold public exercises sometime during the week. Every pastor is urged to deliver an address on the work either on the Sunday opening or the Sunday closing Negro History Week.” He wished for “every community to organize clubs for the study of Negro life and history.” 9The Buffalo American; Buffalo, New York; Thu, Dec 10, 1925 – Page 1. Link.

Negro History Week, 1946.

Though only the Education Departments of West Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina signed onto Dr. Woodson’s idea, smaller communities throughout the country joined in, with Baltimore and Washington, DC city schools being the most prevalent. 10Carter G. Woodson “Negro History Week.” The Journal of Negro History 11, no. 2 (1926): 238.

“The celebration made a deep impression,” he wrote in the months following Negro History Week. “The literature was early prepared and it was distributed in time throughout the country. Easily understood, the idea was readily taken up at center where some thought it given to social amelioration and wherever special efforts are being made to elevate the Negro. Ministers, teachers, social workers, and business men rallied to the support of the movement and made it a national success.” 11Ibid.

The week was typically observed with schools and churches both playing roles. In Springfield, Missouri, for example, began at the Lincoln school by incorporating black history into the curriculum, and ended, “at the Negro Presbyterian church on Friday night at 8 o’clock, when addresses on the past and future of the race will be given. In addition to these, music will be given by the Lincoln [school] band, orchestra, string orchestra, semi-chorus and quartet.” 12The Springfield Leader; Springfield, Missouri; Mon, Feb 8, 1926 – Page 14. Link.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Second Baptist Church held a special Thursday night program with scholars, orators and business people delivering speeches on a variety of subjects. One speaker, W.J. Carter, Jr., gave two speeches himself. Following the example set by Dr. Woodson, Mr. Carter discussed the “Negro in Africa” as well as the “Negro in the Discovery and Exploration of America.” Others talked of the black contribution to labor, to the military, to art and poetry. Still others focused upon the “Negro in the Professions,” and the “Negro in Ministry.” 13The Evening News; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Wed, Feb 10, 1926 – Page 20. Link.

To the south, in Cheraw, South Carolina, the week began on Monday morning with an address at the Presbyterian school. Throughout the week, various talks were given by blacks in academia. Finally, to wrap up the week, on Friday “a splendid program was rendered by Miss Wm. M. Gillespie’s history class.” This ended with a talk concerning “the Negro’s part in the present civilization.” 14The New York Age; New York, New York; Sat, Mar 6, 1926 – Page 9. Link.

Hold Onto the Real Facts of History

In the months that followed, Dr. Woodson took an accounting of how the black community observed Negro History Week. “Throughout the body of Negroes there was a stir in the direction of active participation,” he wrote. “The results were most encouraging. The participants almost as a body wrote the Director about the benefits derived from the celebration.” 15Carter G. Woodson “Negro History Week.” The Journal of Negro History 11, no. 2 (1926): 242.

Negro History Week, 1958.

And to Woodson, it was indeed a celebration. History was a living thing, a thing of the present, of the future. Though held for only a single week each year, he wished to see it incorporated as any other subject.

That is not to say that he wished to see all of history blended together. Because of such widely varying experiences, Woodson understood the importance of everyone learning about black history.

“We do not mean to suggest here, however, that any people should ignore the record of the progress of other races,” wrote Woodson a decade later. “We would not advocate any such unwise course. We say, hold on to the real facts of history as they are, but complete such knowledge by studying also the history of races and nations which have been purposely ignored.” 16Dr. Carter G. Woodson Mis-Education of the Negro (1933) from Chapter 14.

Epilogue

Dr. Woodson continued in his work as an activist and educator until his death in 1950. He left behind a legacy we still share today – the setting aside a time specifically to celebrate black history.

Negro History Week would continue to grow through the mid-century, with every state taking part in it in some fashion or another. Finally, in 1976 the United States government officially observed February as Black History Month. In the decades before, various states and organizations had already begun such a practice. 17Daryl Michael Scott “The History of Black History Month” Link.

“Let us, then, 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. It is not going to be long before we can sing the story to the outside world as to convince it of the value of our history and our traditions, and then we are going to be recognized as men.” 18Carter G. Goodson “Some Things Negroes Need to Do” The Southern Workman, Vol. LI, No. 1 (January, 1922) 33.

Dr. Charles G. Woodson

 

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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