"Most Honorable Mention ... Belongs to Washington, DC": The Carter G. Woodson Home and the Early Black History Movement in the Nation's Capital
Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo, The Journal of African American History
Most honorable mention, however, belongs to Washington. DC, where without any urgent solicitation from $ 1,500 to $2,000 is annually raised to support the work of the Association. The Shaw Junior School, about two blocks from the national office in Washington, raises more money for the cause than any other school in the world. ... Just as the Shaw Junior High School takes priority among the schools so does the Helping Hand Club of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church take priority of the country. This city-wide interchurch is in a class by itself ... It stages annually drives to aid ... the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. ... In this connection should be mentioned the large number of teachers of the District of Columbia who, although prohibited by local regulations from receiving solicitors in the school, voluntarily connect themselves as members of the Association and subscribers to its magazines.
--Carter G. Woodson, 1947 (1)
In the February 1958 issue of Ebony magazine, the Johnson Publishing Company announced; "The third distinguished American named by readers to the Ebony Hall of Fame is the man who helped put the Negro back in the history books, Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950). For decades it was his custom to devote virtually every waking hour to research, writing, and editing. Nothing else mattered. He had no ties to anyone, depended on no one, came as close to any man can to being an island 'entire of itself' He never consciously sought to be liked, never cultivated those habits and personality traits which would endear him to the public. ... He had no home of his own, lived in rented lodgings as a boarder or ate out in restaurants." (2) The editors of African America's most popular magazine for the black middle class in the early years the civil rights campaigns got it wrong about the nature of the public and private life of the "Father of Negro History." The editors at Ebony were correct in observing that Woodson was extremely independent, possessed an intricate and complex personality, and wholeheartedly sacrificed his life for the promotion of African and African American history. However, in Washington, DC, in particular, he had many friends and had mobilized countless co-workers upon whom he depended; he remained committed to the grassroots, serving as a public intellectual and celebrity. Most importantly for Woodson and the early black history movement, on 30 August 1922 he purchased a three-story, Italianate style row house for $8,000 at 1538 Ninth Street, NW, Washington, DC, where he lived from 1922 until the day of his sudden death on 3 April 1950.
Willie Leanna Miles, who worked with Woodson in the years immediately before his death, dubbed the Ninth Street residence the nucleus of the early black history movement. The building housed the Associated Publishers, Inc.; The Journal of Negro History (JNH) and the Negro History Bulletin (NHB), and served as the national headquarters for the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson wrote and dictated to his secretaries and stenographers numerous books, letters, memos, announcements, and essays in the unusual comfort of his "office-home." Important figures of the early black history movement visited "the Association's" headquarters and during the ASNLH's nine annual meetings held in Washington, DC, between 1917 and 1949, the organization's national office was a very busy place. (3) Countless books published by the Associated Publishers, issues of the Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin, and other important documents were stored in the national office's basement. In 1941 Woodson noted that the ASNLH stored in "its fireproof safe in the national office an additional 1,000 or more manuscripts which will be turned over to the Library of Congress as soon as they can be properly sorted. These manuscripts consist of valuable letters of the most noted Negroes of our time: Francis J. Grimke, Charles Young, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Theodore Greener." (4)
Equally important, the Association's headquarters was in charge of overseeing Association branches throughout the country and disseminating "Negro History Week" supplies. Especially after the founding Negro Week celebrations in 1926, Woodson routinely received hundreds of letters at the headquarters from ASNLH branches, school teachers, children, and others requesting black history resources and praising Woodson and the Association. Under headings like "Negro History Week Literature Available Free of Charge" and "Negro History Week Literature Still Available" regularly reprinted in the Negro History Bulletin and leading black newspapers, Woodson advertised the ASNLH's headquarters as a clearinghouse of free information on black history and encouraged his readers to write to him. "Posters and information in other forms will be distributed free of charge," Woodson announced in December 1945. "Send to the office of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History your plans so that you may have the fullest cooperation." (5)
The ASNLH no longer used the building on Ninth Street, NW, as its national headquarters after November 1971, and on 11 May 1976 the structure was designated a National Historic Landmark. After being unoccupied ft)r more than a decade, in December 2003 Public Law 108-192 authorized the National Park Service (NPS) to acquire the building in order to incorporate it as a National Historic Site, and Congress passed H.R. 1012, the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site Establishment Act of 2003, formally designating the Carter G. Woodson Home a National Historic Site. On 10 June 2005 with the goal of preserving and protecting this important building, the National Park Service purchased the Woodson Home from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). "The completed site will provide a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the very place where Woodson lived and worked as he and ASALH brought African American history to life," the National Park Service recently projected. "Completion of the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site will include a restoration and renovation of historic buildings; development, fabrication, and installation of interpretative exhibits; production and distribution of educational and interpretative materials, and other site improvements such as parking, way-finding signs, wayside exhibits, and much more." (6)
Published scholarship on Woodson is well-developed and nuanced; however, various engaging aspects of his life and the ASNLH's activities in Washington, DC, during the early black history movement as well as the multifaceted role of what is now the Carter G. Woodson Home, National Historic Site (NHS) are worthy of further analysis. (7) This essay examines intriguing and previously underappreciated dimensions of Woodson's life and the ASNLH's activities in the nation's capital, the important role of the ASNLH's Ninth Street headquarters from 1922 until Woodson's death in 1950, and the historical significance and evolution of the Carter G. Woodson Home.
SCHOLAR-ACTIVIST IN THE WASHINGTON BLACK COMMUNITY
Woodson's decision to establish the Association's headquarters at 1538 Ninth Street, NW, is not surprising. ASNLH was founded by a group of scholars and researchers in September 1915 in Chicago, an important city in its own right for African American culture and social activism during the Jim Crow era. Woodson briefly lived there and received an M.A. degree in history and romance languages and literature from the University of Chicago in 1908. The Windy City was the location of the ASNLH annual meetings in 1935 and 1940 (two important anniversary years). However, Woodson had decided that the District of Columbia was the best location for him to set up the ASNLH national office for several reasons. The District of Columbia is the nation's capital and located, according to Woodson, "mid-way between the North and the South," and by the so-called Progressive era, "the nadir" for African Americans, Washington came to be considered by many "a black intellectual and civil rights capital." (80 African American businesses, educators, churches, and leaders in the District supported Woodson's early black history movement, especially during annual Negro History Week celebrations and as the site for nine ASNLH annual meetings between 1917 and 1949. Washington, DC, is the home to Howard University, numerous national archives, and the Library of Congress. Since an essential component of Woodson's and the ASNLH's mission was the collection and preservation of documents pertaining to African American history and culture, the District of Columbia was an ideal base of operations. Between 1929 and 1938 Woodson established a documentary treasure trove on African American history at the Library of Congress that is now the Carter Godwin Woodson Papers. Before Woodson began depositing materials in the Library of Congress, there was already a black presence. From 1871 to 1923 Daniel A. P. Murray, the second African American to be employed there, worked on establishing a "Collection of Books by Colored Authors." In 1897 the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar also worked with the Library of Congress as a library assistant. (9)
According to the U.S. census, there were more than 110,000 African Americans residing in the District in 1920, representing approximately 25 percent of the total population. Only New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia had larger black populations. The section where Woodson decided to reside was later dubbed "the Shaw" neighborhood, named after a popular public junior high school in the area that "was bounded by North Capital and 15th streets, NW, on the east and west and Florida Avenue and M Street, NW, on the north and south." (10) From "the boisterous 1920s to the riots of the 1960s, the area north of downtown Washington known today as 'Shaw' was the pre-eminent African American neighborhood in the city." (11) Historian Kathryn S. Smith considers the Shaw black community "Washington's Harlem," where a viable black community was created, "despite acknowledged divisions based on color and class, which functioned well for its members. Shaw was a dense weave of personal acquaintances and lifelong friendships based in strong families, churches, schools, fraternal and social clubs, black-owned businesses, and other local institutions. These provided support, training, and opportunities for important individual and group achievements." Smith also noted, "What the residents of Shaw created under segregation--faced with a larger society that refused them dignity and opportunity--was a place to act and decide. It was a place where they could shape their own lives." (12) In her study of the National Negro Alliance of Washington, Michele F. Pacifico pointed out that the city boasted "more vocal leaders and highly trained and educated African Americans than most other American cities. Because of their proximity to nation al power, educated black Washingtonians considered themselves national figures as well as local leaders." (13) More recently, historian Zachery Williams has argued that during the early 20th century, the nation's capital fostered the development of a dynamic black intellectual community that "was more independent and more autonomous than the Harlem movement." (14)
There were certainly economically deprived Africans Americans living in the vicinity of Woodson's office-home. As data from William H. James's 1929 The Housing of Negroes in Washington, DC and James Borchert's Alley Life in Washington reveal, Washington's "Black Broadway" was significantly different from where the District's struggling and poor black workers lived. During the 1920s the population whom William H. James called "Negro city dwellers" constituted a diverse group of people who lived "all over Washington," but were disproportionately concentrated in the city's alley streets. (15) There were many challenges facing African Americans in the District around the time that Woodson settled there. For example, it was not until 1919--the same year that a race riot engulfed the city in July and that John Whitelaw Lewis opened the first hotel and apartment building for African Americans--"that Washington's black birthrate began to exceed the population's mortality rate." (16) As historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis has underscored, the vast majority of the city's working black women labored as domestic servants. (17) Woodson himself noted the vast discrepancy in the progress made by the "highly educated persons of the District of Columbia" compared to the city's black working-class "masses" between 1880 and 1931. Sympathetic to the working and unemployed "masses" of his people, Woodson did on rare occasions publicly echo the civilizationist sentiments of Washington's black bourgeoisie. "For some time I have been making a special study in Washington, and I try to compare our condition of today with that of the past. Now although the few highly educated persons of the District of Columbia have multiplied and are in better circumstances than ever, the masses show almost as much backwardness as they did in 1880," Woodson observed in 1931. "Although born and brought up in the Black Belt of the South, I never saw there such idolatrous tendencies as I have seen under the dome of the Capitol." At the same time, Woodson in part blamed the District's …
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Publication information: Article title: "Most Honorable Mention ... Belongs to Washington, DC": The Carter G. Woodson Home and the Early Black History Movement in the Nation's Capital. Contributors: Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 96. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2011. Page number: 295+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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