2012 ASALH Black History Luncheon and Featured Authors’ Event.
Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Featured Authors’ Event Begins: 10:00am
Luncheon Doors Open at 12:00 noon
Program: 12:30 – 3:00pm
Keynote Dr. Johnette Cole
Director Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History
Reserve tickets now at http://www.asalh.org
Radio One Celebrates the work of ASALH and Founder Carter G. Woodson with the story of Black History Month as shared by ASALH and Daryl Michael Scott Professor of History at Howard University. Enjoy and feel free to share this link and story!
The Story of Black History Month begins in Chicago during the late summer of 1915. An alumnus of the University of Chicago with many friends in the city, Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington, D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Thousands of African Americans traveled from across the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the destruction of slavery. Awarded a doctorate in Harvard three years
earlier, Woodson joined the other exhibitors with a black history display.
Despite being held at the Coliseum, the site of the 1912 Republican convention, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. Inspired by the three-week celebration, Woodson decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of black life and history before leaving town. On September 9th, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA with A. L. Jackson and three others and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
He hoped that others would popularize the findings that he and other black intellectuals would publish
in The Journal of Negro History, which he established in 1916. As early as 1920, Woodson urged black
civic organizations to promote the achievements that researchers were uncovering. A graduate
member of Omega Psi Phi, he urged his fraternity brothers to take up the work. In 1924, they
responded with the creation of Negro History and Literature Week, which they renamed Negro
Achievement Week. Their outreach was significant, but Woodson desired greater impact. As he told
an audience of Hampton Institute students, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going
to inspire us to greater achievements.” In 1925, he decided that the Association had to shoulder the
responsibility. Going forward it would both create and popularize knowledge about the black past. He
sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February, 1926.
Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform. It is commonly said that Woodson
selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in
shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th
and the 14th, respectively. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s
assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the
fallen President’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, black communities across the country had been
celebrating Douglass’. Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week
around traditional days of commemorating the black past. He was asking the public to extend their
study of black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success.
Yet Woodson was up to something more than building on tradition. Without saying so, he aimed to
reform it from the study of two great men to a great race. Though he admired both men, Woodson
had never been fond of the celebrations held in their honor. He railed against the “ignorant
spellbinders” who addressed large, convivial gatherings and displayed their lack of knowledge about the
men and their contributions to history. More importantly, Woodson believed that history was made
by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. He envisioned the study and celebration of the
Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man. And Lincoln, however great, had not
freed the slaves—the Union Army, including hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors, had
done that. Rather than focusing on two men, the black community, he believed, should focus on the
countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.
From the beginning, Woodson was overwhelmed by the response to his call. Negro History Week
appeared across the country in schools and before the public. The 1920s was the decade of the New
Negro, a name given to the Post-War I generation because of its rising racial pride and consciousness.
Urbanization and industrialization had brought over a million African Americans from the rural South into
big cities of the nation. The expanding black middle class became participants in and consumers of
black literature and culture. Black history clubs sprang up, teachers demanded materials to instruct
their pupils, and progressive whites stepped and endorsed the efforts.
Woodson and the Association scrambled to meet the demand. They set a theme for the annual
celebration, and provided study materials—pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical
performances, and posters of important dates and people. Provisioned with a steady flow of
knowledge, high schools in progressive communities formed Negro History Clubs. To serve the desire
of history buffs to participate in the re-education of black folks and the nation, ASNLH formed branches
that stretched from coast to coast. In 1937, at the urging of Mary McLeod Bethune, Woodson
established the Negro History Bulletin, which focused on the annual theme. As black populations grew,
mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations, and in cities like Syracuse progressive whites joined
Negro History Week with National Brotherhood Week.
Like most ideas that resonate with the spirit of the times, Negro History Week proved to be more
dynamic than Woodson or the Association could control. By the 1930s, Woodson complained about
the intellectual charlatans, black and white, popping up everywhere seeking to take advantage of the
public interest in black history. He warned teachers not to invite speakers who had less knowledge
than the students themselves. Increasingly publishing houses that had previously ignored black topics
and authors rushed to put books on the market and in the schools. Instant experts appeared
everywhere, and non-scholarly works appeared from “mushroom presses.” In America, nothing
popular escapes either commercialization or eventual trivialization, and so Woodson, the constant
reformer, had his hands full in promoting celebrations worthy of the people who had made the history.
Well before his death in 1950, Woodson believed that the weekly celebrations—not the study or
celebration of black history–would eventually come to an end. In fact, 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.
Generations before Morgan Freeman and other advocates of all-year commemorations, Woodson
believed that black history was too important to America and the world to be crammed into a limited
time frame. He spoke of a shift from Negro History Week to Negro History Year.
In the 1940s, efforts began slowly within the black community to expand the study of black history in
the schools and black history celebrations before the public. In the South, black teachers often taught
Negro History as a supplement to United States history. One early beneficiary of the movement
reported that his teacher would hide Woodson’s textbook beneath his desk to avoid drawing the
wrath of the principal. During the Civil Rights Movement in the South, the Freedom Schools
incorporated black history into the curriculum to advance social change. The Negro History
movement was an intellectual insurgency that was part of every larger effort to transform race
The 1960s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of black history. Before the decade was
over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month. The shift to a
month-long celebration began even before Dr. Woodson death. As early as 1940s, blacks in West
Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month. In
Chicago, a now forgotten cultural activist, Fredrick H. Hammaurabi, started celebrating Negro History
Month in the mid-1960s. Having taken an African name in the 1930s, Hammaurabi used his cultural
center, the House of Knowledge, to fuse African consciousness with the study of the black past. By
the late 1960s, as young blacks on college campuses became increasingly conscious of links with Africa,
Black History Month replaced Negro History Week at a quickening pace. Within the Association,
younger intellectuals, part of the awakening, prodded Woodson’s organization to change with the
times. They succeeded. In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Association used its influence
to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to black history. Since the
mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing
the Association’s annual theme.
What Carter G. Woodson would say about the continued celebrations is unknown, but he would smile
on all honest efforts to make black history a field of serious study and provide the public with
Daryl Michael Scott
Professor of History
Vice President of Program, ASALH
© 2011, 2010, 2009 ASALH
This copy may be republished electronically with the following acknowledgement and link
by Daryl Michael Scott for ASALH at http://www.asalh.org
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