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The History Of Black History Month: The Life Of Carter G. Woodson

Professor Burnis Morris is the author of Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations.
Professor Burnis Morris is the author of Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations.

Since the 1970s, February is observed as Black History Month in the U.S. to honor the achievements of Black Americans. For the next few weeks, the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO will look at the genesis of Black history Month and bring us the voices of some local Black historians and story keepers, too.

The father of Black History Month was the remarkable Carter G. Woodson, born in Virginia in 1875. He was a scholar and a promoter of Black history his whole life. Woodson believed that Black and white Americans were being, in his words, miseducated about the true story of African-American life and history, which predated their arrival in America, he says. And he dedicated his life to changing attitude.

In 1915. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The next year, the Journal of Negro History and then in 1926, Negro History Week, which gradually evolved, with the work of many others into Black History Month.

Carter G. Woodson's parents had been enslaved and his father never learned to read, but Carter did. As a teenager, he went to West Virginia on the New River Gorge in Fayette County and worked in the coal mines, joining fellow black men who had been denied an education and the benefit of literacy.

"One of the coal miners was instrumental in Woodson's developing a world view on education and on racial issues. And this coal miner also was illiterate. But he had a substantial library of books, magazines and newspapers, and he asked Carter G. Woodson to read to the other coal miners," says Burnis Morris, the Carter G. Woodson, professor of journalism at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

"The owner of this tearoom is what he called it, a tea room where the Black coal miners would hang out. He couldn't read or write, but other people have read to him from these great books in the library. And Woodson didn't believe that this miner was miseducated because he had not been misled as many others who had gone through the American system of education, which denied many facts and distorted others about African-Americans and their history."

Morris says that there are many incorrect but commonly promoted ideas about Black history still in existence today.

"For example, many educators began teaching about African-Americans with the Civil War or slavery. Blacks have a history before slavery. And so when I conduct institutes for teachers of Black history, I bring in experts on world history, Africa and African-American history who go back much farther than the Civil War and end slavery."

According to Morris, Carter G. Woodson would have been an early proponent of that idea of teaching the global component of Black history.

"Yeah, he was he was heavily influenced - when you mentioned globally - he took a job as a supervisor of schools and as a teacher in the Philippines in 1903," he says. "And he discovered the Filipinos were being treated the way African-Americans were being treated. And that helped to influence his ideas for Negro History Week and Black history as well. You know, of course, they were being taught European history and little about themselves and little in ways that they could learn. You know, if your references are to things that Europeans are used to, the Filipinos or African-Americans may not necessarily relate to that when you're trying to instruct them. So you need to make some references to things that they witness in their environment, that that was a significant part of Woodson's education, teach people in ways that they can understand and help them to receive an education that will allow them to solve their problems."

"1915, Woodson decided to create the Association for the Study of Negro Life in History, the name that's changed over the years to African-American life and history. And his principles in creating that association included educating the world about the Black past of the truth of the Black past. And he believed that if you educate people, race relations would improve because the other races were disrespecting African-Americans because they thought they had no no past to respect, that they had not accomplished anything. And Woodson wanted to put them all on a level field where they all respected each other because they were studying what each other had accomplished. And by creating Negro History Week and creating the association in 1915, he was creating what we now recognize as the Black history movement.

Do you know - he passed in 1950, I believe, was when he passed right? And Black History Month, as we know, it came somewhat later.

But the name Black History Month came in the 1970s during the Ford administration. Actually, Gerald Ford was the first president to proclaim National Black History Month. But in Woodson's day, he wanted people to observe the study of black history throughout the year, not just for one week or even for one month, but it was like taking a baby step, although in this case, the baby step was a gigantic step because no one believed that Negro History Week would take off the way it did. And Woodson believed it was his greatest achievement. His supporters were advocating Negro history year even as early as his death.

But they also noted that he was calling for similar things throughout his life, that it should be studied. He he didn't want just in observance for one week or one month or one class because, you know, there are no Black studies programs in colleges before Woodson's influence or even classes. And I remember seeing one one story in which a professor at a college was saying to Dr. Woodson that he wasn't giving enough credit to this institution. They had created a class of Black history. And Woodson said, I'm not talking about a class. I'm talking about the study of Black history, the study of Blacks. He pointed out that you have studies of other groups.

You know, we've all studied the British history, right, of Greek history and we've studied the Romans. But few institutions, probably none, were studying African-American history the way Woodson believed it should be studied. And when you think about all of the colleges that now have Black studies and African and African-American studies, those are a direct result of what Woodson was advocating. He didn't want a class he wanted the study of. And you can see his fingerprints on all of those programs throughout the country."

Editor's note: the written version of this story has been updated from the audio to note that it was Carter G. Woodson's father who never learned to read.

The History Of Black History Month: The Life Of Carter G. Woodson

This story was produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.


Neenah Ellis is the general manager at WYSO. She began her radio career in high school, working at her parents’ commercial radio station in Valparaiso, Indiana. She came to WYSO in 2009 after 30 years as a radio documentary producer in Washington, D.C. She’ s been a producer for “ All Things Considered” at NPR and has won three Peabody Awards, broadcasting’ s highest honor, for her work. She is also the author of “ If I Live to be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians,” which is based on her radio series about people 100 years of age.