I f you think Black History Month is a recent observance, think again. It’s a tribute to a remarkable man who founded the tradition which eventually grew into Black History Month 85 years ago.
Carter G. Woodson was born Dec. 16, 1875, to former slaves in Virgina. He spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. His education was hit and miss. African American children only got four months of school per year and Woodson wasn’t even able to attend regularly.
Nevertheless, he taught himself the fundamentals of education by age 17.
Alternately going to school and teaching what he had learned, he then completed high school, earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College, a masters from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard, the second one ever awarded by that institution to an African American.
His mission for the rest of his life was the neglected history of African Americans. He wrote what’s now recognized as the first four textbooks on black history.
He began the Journal of Negro History in 1916.
In 1926, Dr. Woodson single-handedly pioneered the institution of Negro History Week, setting it for the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.
That observance was later extended to the full month of February and renamed Black History Month.
Dr. Woodson believed education was the key to fighting prejudice and saw black history observances as important for white Americans as for black ones.
“Contributions (by African Americans) have been overlooked, ignored and even suppressed....” he wrote. “Prejudice is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”
Dr. Woodson devoted his life and set out to proving that view wrong. He succeeded.—M.B.