Black Historians & Black History: The Early Years

By Huntley, Horace | Diversity Employers, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Black Historians & Black History: The Early Years


Huntley, Horace, Diversity Employers


The ongoing discussion of the necessity to study Black History has persisted for more than 100 years. The early initiatives were defensive in nature and sought to prove the worthiness of Black people to be a part of the body politic of this nation and in fact, members of the human race. From the 1660s, when Virginia and Maryland institutionalized slavery, Black people felt it necessary to justify their existence. The young nation issued a fugitive slave law, extended the slave trade for 20 years, and the U.S. Constitution spelled out the less-than-human status of the children of Africa by designating them three-fifths of a person. After the government laid the foundation for white supremacy, various individuals joined the chorus touting the inferiority of Black folk.

A college professor, a noted governor and the president of the United States supported white supremacy. Dr. Thomas Dew of William and Mary attempted to justify the institution of slavery by saying that Africans "[differ] from us [whites] in color and habits and [are] vastly inferior in the scale of civilization." George McDuffie, the Governor of South Carolina, added that African slavery was "destined by providence, evidenced by the color of their skin and intellectual inferiority and natural improvidence of this race."

And Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, suggested that he would assign the superior status to whites, and supported Black colonization because he doubted the ability of free Black people to live successfully among whites.

Enter historians of the African/African-American experiences to debunk the myths and escalate the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. The first years of the 20th century witnessed the pioneers and the first professionally trained historians of African descent. In 1897, W.E.B. DuBois' Harvard University doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, was published as the first volume of the prestigious Harvard Historical Classics. DuBois published many other books including The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction. In addition, he was a founding member of the NAACP, and the first editor of the organization's The Crisis magazine. In 1939 he founded Phylon, Atlanta University's "Review of Race and Culture." Of his studies about the African and African-American experience, DuBois said, "My attention from the first was focused on democracy and democratic development and upon the problem of the admission of my people into the freedom of democracy." (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, another Harvard graduate, organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The following year he published the first issue of The Journal of Negro History. According to Woodson, The Journal was created for "the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, 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." (2) The Journal of Negro History has been the most enduring of scholarly works on Black people. In 1926 Woodson developed the concept for the celebration of "Negro History Week," which has evolved into African American History Month, observed in February each year. …

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