Editor’s note: Welcome to new contributor Ronald M. Johnson, Georgetown University professor and author.
–by Ronald M. Johnson
This month finds us celebrating the eighty-seventh anniversary of the founding of Black History Month, an event first staged in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson. Initially called Negro History Week and held in February to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, that original week has evolved into a month of activities that increase knowledge of and insight into the historic black experience. The longevity and success of this effort has made it a model for others seeking to honor their particular American cultural traditions. Irish-American Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and Jewish Heritage Month, among many others, suggest that Woodson’s original effort has had a much wider application than he could have imagined at the time.
With its roots in slavery, however, black history is unique among efforts at studying the American past. For that reason, Carter Woodson is a unique figure among American historians. Born in 1875 in rural Virginia, his parents had been slaves before the Civil War. As historian and Woodson biographer Jacqueline Goggin has noted, “Woodson was profoundly affected by his family’s history; it is probably not an overstatement to say that he was compelled to become a historian to reveal to the world the truths about the African American past. His social origins, as the only professionally trained historian whose parents themselves had experienced slavery, not only influenced his decision to become a historian, they also were bound up with his identity as an African American historian.”
Eager to overcome the effects of slavery, Woodson took steps to gain an education. He pursued his studies with vigor as a youngster and never let up, eventually earning two undergraduate degrees, a M.A.from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Harvard (the second African American to do so after William E. B. DuBois) before moving to the District of Columbia to teach in the public schools. After several years of teaching and administration, and frustrated by the overt white racism of his day, Woodson began an organization dedicated to educating the broader public about black history and culture.
Founded in 1915, and known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, it continues to fulfill the mandate that Woodson envisioned nearly a century ago. To advance the work of the new group, he next founded the first scholarly journal in the United States dedicated to the study of black history. Today the Journal of African American History, now in its 97th year of publication, serves scholars and graduate students as an outlet for publishing their research. In addition, the ASAALH initiated a wide variety of publications designed to help in the teaching of history in the school systems of the country. Ten years after founding the new journal, Woodson moved to broaden the educational mission of the organization by establishing a week-long series of talks, panels, and ceremonies that would reach beyond the black population to the larger American public.
The founding of Negro History Week emerged, in part, as a tribute to two men: one a slave who gained his freedom and the other a white man who lost his life in the struggle to end slavery. Woodson saw the lives of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as critical to achieving the goals of the new effort: the former for his self-reliance, search for knowledge, and political activism and the latter for personal sacrifice, national honor, and a vision of a society without racial restraints. For Woodson, the week of honoring African American history would work to enlighten all Americans about the struggles faced by blacks over the years of slavery and segregation. The effort was designed to fight racism on the front-lines, in the schools, neighborhoods, and communities across the nation.
A long time passed before the kind of awareness he had sought began to emerge. The turning point arrived in 1976 when President Gerald Ford became the first chief executive to issue proclamations honoring Woodson’s legacy. By then, stimulated by black student calls for expanding the event to a full month, the event had taken on new significance. The proclamation acknowledged that African Americans had faced difficult challenges throughout their history and now were now to be recognized for overcoming the many barriers they had encountered. As a result, for the first time, Black History Month became a nationally recognized event. Since then, including the vote in 1986 by Congress to officially designate the event with a federal statute, the month of February has provided an ongoing platform for honoring the history of black America, especially the Civil Rights movement and the transformation in race relations that have occurred over the past half century.
Today some question whether the setting aside of a period of time to focus on African American history has lost its relevance in multicultural America. In 2005, black actor Morgan Freeman told CBS interviewer Mike Wallace that he found the idea of Black History Month “ridiculous” and called for ending the annual event. Others have said as much, arguing that contemporary society no longer requires such events. Not everyone, however, is in agreement with that viewpoint.
More recently, writer Raina Kelley noted that the purpose of the event remains relevant in today’s America. “For Black History Month to once again seem culturally relevant,” she wrote, “part of its time must be spent asking why there are still so many negative portrayals of black people in our culture—we can’t just spend all 28 days talking about the nice ones. And rather than wasting time bemoaning the existence of Black History Month, why don’t we use it to proselytize for the issues that need to be more fully covered and understood the other 337 days of the year—such as failing inner-city public schools, institutionalized poverty, health-care disparities, and job discrimination?”
Even as questions about its viability are raised, Black History Month appears alive and well. All across the nation, in schools and communities, the month of February provides venues for discourse and learning. Here on Capitol Hill, there are lectures, exhibitions, and concerts, open to both staff and the general public, which honor the heritage of African Americans. All of this is a testimony to the original vision of Carter G. Woodson that the nation needed to honor and study the historic black experience as an integral part of the larger American effort to create a better and more open society.
1. The Jacqueline Goggin quote was found in her introduction to “A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Papers of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1915-1950” (University Publications of America, 1999), p. v. She also authored Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1997).
2. The Morgan Freeman interview, which aired on 60 Minutes on February 2, 2010, can be viewed at http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=1131418n
3. Raina Kelley’s comments appeared in the January 18, 2010 issue of Newsweek.