By CHARLYNN SPENCER PYNE
Following is an essay on "the cause" of Carter G. Woodson, recognized as the "Father of Black History." Woodson researched his dissertation at the Library of Congress, where he was encouraged by Manuscript Division Chief J. Franklin Jameson to pursue his goals.
The effort to preserve and publicize the historical heritage of black Americans was the mission of Carter G. Woodson, who called his beloved black history crusade "the cause."
Woodson successfully launched a bold campaign of public education and advocacy on the one hand and research and publication to gain scholarly acceptance of the history of African peoples on the other.
Born in 1875 near the end of Reconstruction, in Buckingham County, Va., Woodson was the fifth of James Henry and Anna Eliza Woodson's seven surviving children. Carter Woodson's parents had been born into slavery in Virginia. His father, however, had escaped during the Civil War and served in the Union Army. In 1867, two years after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, 30-year-old James Henry Woodson married 19-year-old Anna Eliza Riddle. A skilled carpenter like his father, James Henry was unable to support himself with his craft and was forced into sharecropping.
By the time of Carter Godwin Woodson's birth, James Henry had managed to buy 20 acres near his father's farm. Although the family was extremely poor, their status as landowners afforded them a measure of freedom that contributed to the young Woodson's strong self-reliance (Goggin 1993, 7-9).
The Woodson children worked hard on the family farm, and four months out of the year -- between harvesting and planting -- they attended the nearby school run by their uncles, John Morton Riddle and James Buchanan Riddle. While his uncles served as important role models, Woodson nevertheless credited his father, who was illiterate, with teaching him his most valuable lessons - - to be polite to everyone but to demand respect as a human being and never betray "the race." Woodson's mother, who had learned to read and write, expected Woodson -- her favorite child -- to work hard and do well in his studies (Goggin 1993, 10).
"The History of the Race"
In 1892, when he was 17, Woodson followed his older brothers to West Virginia, where they had moved several years earlier to work in the coal mines. There, Woodson fell in love with "the history of the race" through his association with Oliver Jones, whom he described as well-educated despite his inability to read and write. Jones, a former cook and Civil War veteran from Richmond, whom Woodson said "looked the part of a Virginia gentleman," operated a tearoom in his home, where black miners gathered in the evening to buy ice cream and fruits.
When Jones learned that Woodson could read, he engaged Woodson to read the daily newspapers to him and his customers in exchange for free treats. By subscribing to "black" and "white" newspapers, Jones sought to keep abreast of the news in the black community, as well as in the nation and the world. Woodson, in acknowledging the educational value of this experience, wrote:
"I learned so much myself because of the much more extensive reading required by him than I probably would have undertaken for my own benefit. ... In seeking through the press information ... for Oliver Jones and his friends, I was learning in an effective way ... history and economics" (Woodson 1944, 116).
The "history of the race" was a frequent topic at Oliver Jones's place. Woodson would listen intently as the veterans and "old-timers" talked of their experiences during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. He would later become a pioneer in the use of oral history.
Woodson described Jones's home as "all but a reading room" that included works on black history and biography. Whenever a Civil War veteran or notable black person achieved distinction or ran for political office, Woodson would be asked to search for information and inform those present of his or her achievements. Likewise, many distinguished African-Americans visited Jones's place when they were in the area. Woodson wrote that through these experiences "my interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened and intensified" (Woodson 1944, 116).
To further pursue this interest Woodson resolved to return to school, and, at the age of 20, moved into his parent's home in Huntington, W.Va., to attend Frederick Douglass High School. Completing his high school studies in just two years, Woodson enrolled in Berea College in Kentucky in 1897 with only enough funds to attend full-time for two quarters.
Nevertheless, over the next 15 years, Woodson earned a bachelor of letters degree from Berea, B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Chicago, and in 1912 a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. He did all this while teaching full-time in Malden, W.Va. (1898-1900), serving as principal of Huntington's Frederick Douglass High School (1900-1903), and teaching in the Philippines (1903-1907). In 1907, while traveling on a six-month world tour, he conducted research at various libraries and studied for a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris.
"The Cause" Takes Root
In 1909 Woodson moved to Washington to work on his dissertation at the Library of Congress and teach in the District of Columbia public schools. Originally assigned to teach the eighth grade at Thaddeus Stevens School, Woodson soon transferred to Armstrong Manual Training School -- a vocational and technical high school, and in 1911, to M Street High School -- an elite black academic institution.
Washington's African-American schools had incorporated black history into the curriculum at all levels, and Woodson's commitment to the study and teaching of black history was solidified during his tenure there (Goggin 1993, 31).
In April 1915 Woodson published his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. In June 1915 he traveled to Chicago to participate in the Exposition of Negro Progress (held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of emancipation) and to research and write. In September Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which he incorporated upon his return to Washington. Historians August Meier and Elliott Rudwick wrote of Woodson's effort:
"Coming to intellectual maturity amid the tide of disenfranchisement, sharecropping, Jim Crow and mob violence that marked what Rayford W. Logan has termed the 'nadir' in the fortunes of American blacks during the post-Civil War era, Woodson sought to build and popularize a serious interest in Negro history at the apogee of popular and scientific racism in Western thought" (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 2).
Woodson, like many Americans who came of age during the Progressive Era, believed that education was a catalyst for social action and an agent of social change. He believed that the history of African peoples in Africa and in the Americas would inspire black pride, "uplift the race" and destroy white racist beliefs and prejudices. Declared Woodson in a speech at Hampton Institute:
"We have a wonderful history behind us. ... If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, 'You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.' They will say to you, 'Who are you anyway?' ... Let us, then, study ... this history ... with the understanding that we are not, after all, an inferior people. ... We are going back to that beautiful history, and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements. It is not going to be long before we can sing the story to the outside world as to convince it of the value of our history ... and we are going to be recognized as men" (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 9).
Woodson's commitment to the ASNLH was firmly rooted, and "the cause" became his life's passion and work. While the association was not the first organization established specifically to promote African-American history -- black intellectuals had founded the American Negro Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1897 and the Negro Society for Historical Research (Yonkers, N.Y.) in 1912 (Winston 1973, 19) -- Woodson singlehandedly made it the most successful and long-lived of its kind.
Just four months after establishing the association, Woodson published the first issue of the Journal of Negro History with money borrowed against his life insurance policy. The Journal provided a forum for black and white scholars to publish research on African-American history and culture and devoted a substantial portion of its pages to reprinting little-known primary documents.
Both the price of the Journal and the association's membership fees were kept low so as not to be prohibitive to the majority of African-Americans. This policy made it necessary for Woodson to contribute his own money and rely on white philanthropy. As a result, Woodson selected the association's officers and executive board members primarily on their ability to contribute or raise funds. Although the financial burden would have been lessened by affiliating with a black college or university, Woodson --fiercely independent -- adamantly refused such an affiliation and always stressed his autonomy.
&3A Brief Career in Academia. While working incessantly to promote "the cause" and to raise funds for the association, Woodson continued teaching and, in 1918, became principal of Armstrong Manual Training School. After just a year at Armstrong, Woodson became discouraged by the lack of support given to vocational education. He left to accept a position at Howard University and to begin his most fruitful decade.
That decade, however, did not begin smoothly. Joining the Howard faculty in the summer of 1919 as dean of the School of Liberal Arts and head of the history department, Woodson saw his new position as an opportunity to earn more money to contribute to the association, a chance to train young black historians that he could recruit to "the cause" and an occasion to devote more time to research and writing. However, he soon found himself locked in a series of disputes with J. Stanley Durkee, Howard's 11th (and last) white president.
Coming to the university in 1918, Durkee, an energetic and autocratic Congregationalist minister, was determined to shape the university to his own liking by reorganizing the entire academic structure and centralizing all authority, including that of the previously independent professional schools, in his hands. (Wolters 1975, 94-99).
In the winter of 1920, Woodson publicly criticized Durkee for damaging academic freedom by removing from the university library Elbert Rhys Williams's Seventy-Six Questions on the Bolsheviks and Soviets after a complaint from Sen. Reed Smoot. That spring Woodson balked at Durkee's order to monitor faculty attendance at daily chapel service and exacerbated their differences by organizing, without Durkee's permission, a series of continuing-education courses for Washington's public school teachers. Infuriated by Woodson's actions, Durkee rejected Woodson's conciliatory gestures and fired him before commencement in June 1920 (Goggin 1993, 50-53).
During Woodson's brief tenure at Howard, he introduced courses in black history in the School of Liberal Arts and organized the graduate program in history. Earlier efforts by Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, and others to institute courses in black studies and race relations had been rejected by Howard's predominantly white board of trustees. Historian Michael R. Winston attributes this rejection to the fact that "courses on race would help to more firmly identify the institution as black, and there were many who held fast to the conviction that Howard ought to be an institution for the education of 'youth' no matter what the realities of racial segregation in the United States" (Winston 1973, 21).
In late June, Woodson accepted with gratitude an invitation to become dean of the College Department of West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now West Virginia State College).
"The Cause" Blossoms
1920 -- a year marked by controversy and difficulties at Howard University, was also a year that "the association found itself with the largest deficit in its history," Woodson wrote later (Woodson 1925, 602). But 1921 witnessed the blossoming of "the cause."
During Woodson's first year at the Virginia Collegiate Institute, the College Department offered new courses in a variety of subjects, including history, political science and economics. Enrollment for the institute grew from less than 300 students to nearly 450, with 54 students receiving degrees in May 1921 (Goggin 1993, 54).
Also in May, Woodson received news that would at last allow him to devote his full attention to "the cause": The Carnegie Foundation agreed to fund his request for $25,000 to support the work of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The foundation had been persuaded to support Woodson's efforts by endorsements from prominent white historians, especially J. Franklin Jameson -- "who finally unlocked for Woodson the virtually closed doors of philanthropy" (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 27).
Jameson was director of the Department of Historical Research at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and later chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. He and Woodson "had much in common, sharing not only an interest in black history but a mutual passion for collecting documents dealing with the Afro-American past" (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 30).
Woodson received the Carnegie grant over a five-year period in semiannual installments of $2,500, administered by Jameson. The money was used to pay off the association's debts and for current operating expenses. Jameson and Woodson believed that the Carnegie grant would provide the association with leverage to generate additional funding (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 35).
Nine months later, just as they had hoped, Woodson received word that the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund had agreed to back his proposal for $25,000 (in $5,000 per-year installments) to pursue the research projects he had outlined. With money secured for research, Woodson was able to hire full- time research assistants and pursue projects he had begun on slavery, free blacks in the antebellum period, Reconstruction and the black church. Rockefeller grants financed the association's research program over the next decade -- a decade that produced "the finest corpus of scholarship that the association would sponsor" (Goggin 1993, 60; Meier & Rudwick 1986, 46).
Upon receipt of the first Carnegie check in June 1921, Woodson announced that he would begin working full-time for the association at an annual salary of $3,000. He delayed his employment until the summer of 1922, however, because he had promised the institute's president, John W. Davis, that he would stay at the institute for another year.
In the meantime, Woodson incorporated the Associated Publishers, an independent, commercial publishing company, in Washington, D.C. He appointed himself president; Davis, treasurer; and Louis Mehlinger (Woodson's friend and neighbor who worked for the Treasury Department as a typist and stenographer), secretary. Woodson had long promoted the establishment of a black publishing company to produce books on black studies, because white firms were extremely reluctant to publish books by or about African-Americans. Woodson believed that such an outlet would generate funding for other association endeavors. This, however, did not prove true (Goggin 1993, 55).
The Associated Publishers soon released Woodson's third book, The History of the Negro Church, a study he had begun as his master's thesis in 1908 but had abandoned for lack of available documentation.
Although 1921 was a good year, it was not without its controversies --most centering on Woodson's dictatorial style of managing the association. One such controversy, near the end of the year, brought down the wrath of Thomas Jesse Jones, an influential white administrator in black education and the powerful officer of a philanthropic organization.
Jones, a Columbia-trained sociologist, had been director of the Hampton Institute Research Department and, from 1913 to 1946, served as educational director of the Phelps-Stokes Fund -- controlling millions of dollars earmarked for industrial education for blacks. Jones directed a study of black schools cosponsored by the department of education (U.S. Bureau of Education, Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States, 1917). He angered many black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois -- a leading scholar, activist, and promoter of academic education -- with his sharp criticism of schools not focusing on vocational education and not meeting the standards of his model, the well- developed Hampton Institute. (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 22; Scally 1985, 13).
Nevertheless, Woodson arranged for Jones's study to be favorably reviewed in the Journal and appointed him to the Executive Council of the association. In October 1921, however, Woodson abruptly removed Jones. He had become anathema to the black community for blocking the appointment of Max Yergen to a YMCA position in South Africa, because Jones feared that Yergen's views were too "Du Boisian" for his liking (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 38).
At the association's annual meeting, Woodson announced Jones's removal from the Executive Council. He also disclosed that Robert E. Park, a white University of Chicago sociologist and president of the association since 1917, had resigned and that Jesse E. Moorland, a clergyman, leader of the Colored YMCA movement and the most influential black member of the Howard University board of trustees, had been replaced as treasurer.
When Emmet J. Scott -- the secretary-treasurer and business manager of Howard University, protested the removal of Moorland, he too was dismissed from the council. But while Park, Moorland and Scott left graciously and continued to support the association, Jones, angered by his dismissal and by a bitter denunciation that Woodson had hastily inserted into his new book,
The History of the Negro Church, embarked on a letter-writing campaign to sabotage Woodson's program. Jones charged that Woodson was a propagandist rather than a scholar and a "radical" in his views on race relations. Woodson later wrote:
"Thomas Jesse Jones began to use every possible means to lop off the supporters of the association. ... I interviewed rich white people to whom he had written. Some of them have taken letters from their files and have shown them to me" (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 40).
"The Cause" in Full Bloom
In the summer of 1922, after completing his second year at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, Woodson returned to Washington, where he could devote all his time and attention to "the cause." Woodson, who had continued to rent office space in the heart of the black community, now purchased a house to serve as the permanent headquarters for the association and the Journal, and as his home.
With the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund grant received in February, Woodson hired his first full-time researcher, A.A. Taylor. A native of Washington and faculty member at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, Taylor received encouragement and funding from Woodson to pursue doctoral studies at Harvard.
In March Woodson published "The Negro in Our History", a popular account intended as a college textbook. The first edition quickly sold out. The second edition, appearing one year later, also sold out before the end of the year (Goggin 1993, 69). The "Negro in Our History" went through nine additional printings during Woodson's lifetime, and the 12th (and last) edition, coauthored by Charles Wesley, was published in 1972.
"The Negro in Our History" was the standard college and high school textbook on black history for 25 years, until the publication of John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom in 1947 (Thorpe 1971, 118).
Encouraged by Jameson, Woodson and Taylor began a study of free blacks during the antebellum period, using the 1830 census. The young poet, Langston Hughes, was hired to work on this project and found Woodson to be a quintessential example of "industry and stick-to-it-tiveness." Hughes wrote of himself and the staff:
"We often said ... that if we could work that hard we might get somewhere someday, too. But none of us really wanted to work that hard and we wondered how Dr. Woodson did it. To that old saying about 'how much devotion it takes to serve a cause' might be added, 'and how much labor'" (Hughes 1950, 188).
In 1925, looking back on the first 10 years in the life of the association, Woodson wrote:
"At the close of the first decade the association finds much to its credit. It has published the Journal of Negro History, a quarterly scientific magazine, now in its 10th volume. ... It has published 10 monographs developing scientifically neglected aspects of Negro life and history. It has stimulated and trained young men with the capacity for research according to the methods of modern historiography. Above all, it has made the world see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history" (Woodson 1925, 598).
At the midpoint in the decade, Woodson could look with pride on his efforts to popularize his beloved "history of the race" and bring it scholarly recognition and new practitioners. He and Taylor had conducted groundbreaking research on free blacks during the antebellum period and African-Americans during Reconstruction and had published Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830 (1924), Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 (1925) and The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction (1924). The Negro in the Reconstruction of Virginia and The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1860 were slated to be released the following year.
1925 was also a pivotal point in the "New Negro Movement," also known as the "Harlem Renaissance." That year Alain Locke published The New Negro, a handsome anthology showcasing contemporary black literature and culture, that Locke called the "first fruits of the Negro Renaissance."
The book became the symbol of the new era, and Locke, its principal spokesperson. Indicative of the racial consciousness of the movement was a lively interest in black history, symbolized by the popularity of black bibliophile Arthur Schomburg's essay, included in The New Negro, titled "The Negro Digs Up His Past."
Woodson, inspired by this wellspring of interest and impressed by the success of Marcus Garvey's black nationalist movement, started Negro History Week in 1926 and "launched the most successful effort to mobilize a racial minority through historical consciousness. A strong case can be made that without such a broad-based 'history movement' the opposition to disfranchisement and segregation would not have gathered strength and resilience that resulted in the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s" (Winston 1993, 1).
This achievement, which has become a national tradition observed annually as Black History Month, has made Woodson the "Father of Black History."
In 1926 Woodson was awarded the NAACP's coveted Spingarn Medal for "10 years' service in collecting and publishing records of the Negro in America." Woodson was nominated first for the award by W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom he shared a respectful but distant relationship. Du Bois later declared Woodson's establishment of Negro History Week to be the "greatest single accomplishment" of the Harlem Renaissance (Du Bois 1971, 203).
In 1926 the Carnegie grant expired and Woodson failed to obtain a renewal. His efforts to secure funds from other sources also proved futile, and while the Rockefeller Memorial Fund continued to provide assistance throughout the decade, Woodson received no foundation funds after 1933.
Woodson placed the blame for this situation largely on the shoulders of Thomas Jesse Jones, who remained relentless in his efforts to thwart and sabotage Woodson's fundraising activities. On the other hand, Woodson's adamant refusal to affiliate with a black university "ran athwart of the changing policies of the foundations." (Meier & Rudwick 1986, 47-53)
These foundations shifted from an emphasis on rural education to the building of black leadership and academic centers of scholarship. They wanted to fund university-affiliated research, a compromise that Woodson refused to make for fear of losing his autonomy and because of his own unhappy experiences in academe. Philanthropic interest had also changed from historical studies to policy-oriented social research. Thus, Meier and Rudwick contend that Jones's threat, though real, was not crucial.
However, Michael R. Winston, a keen observer of the black intelligentsia, defends Woodson and is critical of scholars who fail to take into consideration the full effects of racism on the first generation of black scholars, and the extent to which the nation was committed to maintaining the intellectual basis on which it had fashioned the doctrine of white supremacy. He wrote in 1993:
"While the legal apparatus of segregation is by now well known to most Americans, the more subtle structure of the intellectual dimensions of white supremacy has been all but hidden from view, known for the most part only anecdotally by black scholars themselves.
"The fact that Woodson could be investigated for years [by the FBI] is more than a quaint artifact of the American past. It points to the larger issue of how American history is to be interpreted, which was always part of the opposition to Woodson in the first place" (Winston 1993, 6).
After the 1920s, Woodson financed his work for "the cause" with funds from the black community. Fraternal organizations, women's clubs, churches and local branches of the association supported his work. He remained director of the association, editor of the Journal and passionately committed to "the cause" until his death in 1950.
From 1920 to 1930 Woodson was the dominant figure in African-American historical scholarship. During this period he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), the Journal of Negro History and the Associated Publishers. He also initiated the observance of Negro History Week, now Black History Month. These organizations and commemorations continue to the present day.
Woodson also directed the research of a group of younger historians and published their writings. Many became leaders in African-American historiography and, in turn, directed and aided the third generation of academically trained professional historians. Woodson worked prodigiously to make all aspects of the history of African-Americans and their contributions to civilization known.
His legacy lives on in the study and teaching of African- American history and in the continuing struggle of African- Americans for recognition and equality.