Making Black History Practical and Popular: Carter G. Woodson, the Proto Black Studies Movement, and the Struggle for Black Liberation

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Introduction

Nearly one century ago, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), the only individual of slave parentage to be awarded a Ph.D. in history, began laying the foundations for the current advanced state of African American history and Black Studies. Several years after earning his doctorate from Harvard University in 1912, Woodson published his first monograph, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (New York: Putnam's, 1915), and established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). According to Woodson, the Association, which he co-founded in Chicago with George Cleveland Hall, James E. Stamps, and Alexander L. Jackson, outlined its function to encompass "the collection of sociological and historical data" on African Americans, "the study of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in this field, and the promotion of harmony between the races by acquainting the one with the other" (Woodson 1925, p. 598). During Woodson's lifetime, the Association served as the nationally recognized movement center for the advancement of black history. Unlike most scholarly organizations during the era of segregation, black or white, the membership of the ASNLH represented a diverse cross section of the black community, including professionals, intellectuals, school teachers, non-formally trained scholars, and youth.

Founded in 1926, The Journal of Negro History (hereafter JNH) was the first professional, scholarly journal devoted to the study of black history. Recognizing the lack of black owned presses, in 1922 Woodson founded the Associated Publishers in Washington, D.C. and published the first major textbook on black history, The Negro in Our History. In 1926, he received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal and launched his most famous program, Negro History Week, a multifaceted attempt at integrating black history into the public school system, raising black cultural consciousness, and dismantling American racism. During the peak of the Great Depression in 1933, Woodson published his most famous, still popular, and often mis-understood book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Beginning in 1937, he published The Negro History Bulletin (hereafter NHB), an informative, straight-forward black history magazine which sought to introduce black history, culture, and politics to an audience beyond the JNH readership. In roughly four decades of scholarly productivity, Woodson wrote, co-authored, and/or edited more than twenty studies, more than a dozen major articles, and countless newspaper columns and book reviews. Between 1915 and 1950, Woodson developed and adopted his strategies of black uplift and proactive social reform to suit the broader transformations in American society and the black community. He adjusted smoothly to the multitude of changes generated by the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and the Second World War and its aftermath.

Along with countless other professionally and nonprofessionally trained scholars, Woodson was an important member of the proto Black Studies Movement. This African American "vindicationist tradition" (Franklin 1995; Franklin and Collier-Thomas 1996) included many black scholars who during the era of Jim Crow segregation laid the foundations for the modern Black Studies Movement. W.E.B. Du Bois has probably been the most widely acknowledged member of this black scholarly tradition. While this group was by no means philosophically monolithic, they were bound together in meaningful ways. They were largely excluded from what Molefi Kete Asante has called "white stream" institutions (Asante 2001). For the most part, they did not have access to certain benefits and resources located in exclusive white scholarly outposts. They, in turn, created viable, productive autonomous academic institutions, scholarly approaches, and practical strategies for black mental and psychological liberation. Darlene Clark Hine (2003) has called these niches "parallel institutions" (p. …