Carter G. Woodson, The Father of Black History Month

Historians in the News
tags: Black History Month, Black History

February marks the 39th government-recognized Black History Month. But the month-long celebration of a history that was once disregarded and suppressed didn’t originate during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. In fact, its origins date back to 1926, when a historian named Carter G. Woodson spearheaded “Negro History Week.”

Before Carter G. Woodson became the “father of black history,” he witnessed it firsthand as the son of two former slaves. An enthusiastic and gifted student, Woodson was the second black American to receive a Ph.D. in history. But though he was interested in the history of his race, he quickly found that libraries and archives just didn’t collect primary materials relating to black Americans.

Eager to fill in the historical record, Woodson created the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and founded The Journal of Negro History soon after. As Jacqueline Goggin reports in “Carter G. Woodson and the Collection of Source Materials for Afro-American History,” Woodson used the Journal and his new organization to spread the word about the importance of primary materials. Though institutions like the Guggenheim and the Carnegie Institution refused to fund him, he was able to form powerful alliances with the Library of Congress and other organizations.

Woodson documented the lives of black soldiers during World War I, solicited oral histories from surviving slaves, and uncovered rare letters and artifacts along the way. As Woodson’s professional network grew, so did his conviction that a better understanding of black history would help overcome prejudice in the United States.

“Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always a child,” he wrote in a pamphlet advertising the first “Negro History Week” in February 1926. “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” ...

Read entire article at JSTOR

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