Making Black History Practical and Popular: Carter G. Woodson, the Proto Black Studies Movement, and the Struggle for Black Liberation
Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo, The Western Journal of Black Studies
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. 1279). The overarching philosophical outlook of many black scholars during the era of Jim Crow segregation dictated that they create productive epistemologies which established, validated, and promoted the rigorous study of black life while simultaneously directly challenging white ethnocentric scholarship and social thought. In the case of Woodson in particular, he foreshadowed modern Black Studies scholars in stressing that the study of African descendants be scholarly sound, creative, restorative, and, most importantly, directly relevant to the black community. Scholars concerned with defining the purpose and function of Black Studies could learn a great deal from critically revisiting Woodson's worldview and program.
One of Woodson's most important contributions to the proto (pre Black Power era) Black Studies Movement was his mission and ability to transform black history into a practical and popular medium for uplifting blacks and challenging racial prejudice. He revolutionized the American historical profession and democratized the study of black history by extending the discipline to various non-professionally groups of trained scholars. In adopting this approach, he did not de-emphasize the role of scientific scholarship in the "life-and-death struggle" for black liberation. On the other hand, he maintained that in addition to being founded on meticulous research, the study and dissemination of black history needed to extend to the working-class and youthful sectors of the black community. Woodson reasoned that the knowledge of African American history was, after all, an important and practical, though nonmaterial, way in which black people could become liberated and empowered. Between 1915 and 1950 (increasingly more by the 1920s), he strove to enlighten the black masses, popularizing black history in a variety of innovative ways. He extended himself as a resource to black communities throughout the country. Woodson opened the doors of the Association meetings and activities to lay historians, ministers, secondary and elementary school teachers, businessmen, and the black community as a whole. He initiated Negro History Week and other extension services. One of his most important contributions was the NHB, an essential, yet often overlooked, outlet for not only Woodson himself but countless black thinkers representing a wide-spectrum of the black community.
Several questions help us frame Woodson's contributions to the proto Black Studies Movement. What influenced and motivated Woodson to adopt an essentially pragmatic approach to history? In what particular manners did he democratize the study and dissemination of black history? How did he successfully mesh his nineteenth-century idea that history consisted of the collection and presentation of "facts" with his more progressive philosophy that history could uplift and empower blacks? How did Woodson use his popular scholarly medium to introduce his readers to contemporary social and political realities and concerns? How did Woodson's ideas about class differences within the black community shape his approach to history? This article explores how after founding the ASNLH, Woodson democratized, legitimized, and popularized black history, while paying close attention to his diversified clientele.
Woodson's Early Quest to Popularize Black History
In searching for the origins of Woodson's concern with popularizing black history and facilitating cross-class and cross-generational dialogues and interactions, a logical starting point is his upbringing and early years. Historian Jacqueline Goggin has detailed Woodson's early years, connecting them to his "life's work" with the ASNLH from 1922 until 1950 (Goggin 1993, pp. 1-65). Raised by former slaves and sharecroppers, Woodson came from very humble origins which he remembered. A seasoned manual laborer from his early childhood until his twenties, Woodson probably identified strongly with the children of black coal miners whom he taught from 1898 until 1900 in Winona, West Virginia.
After receiving the Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1912, …
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Publication information: Article title: Making Black History Practical and Popular: Carter G. Woodson, the Proto Black Studies Movement, and the Struggle for Black Liberation. Contributors: Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo - Author. Journal title: The Western Journal of Black Studies. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2004. Page number: 372+. © 1999 The Western Journal of Black Studies. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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