Black History Month started with a bang this year, as our new administration got #dragged on #Twitter for missing the mark a bit on their public pronouncements. When asked to name a black person from history he admired, President Donald Trump said, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
And Vice-President Mike Pence Tweeted:
So it appears they thought, respectively, a Civil War-era abolitionist was still alive, and a white guy deserved a prime shout-out to kick off Black History Month.
But maybe they weren’t so off the mark. Black History Month was originally founded as Negro History and Literature Week by Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History.” Woodson chose the second week of February to honor two big days often celebrated in the black community: the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th) and Frederick Douglass (14th.)
So Trump was…right on black history?
Sort of. But also not.
Woodson realized that he’d get the most traction for his Negro History and Literature Week if he capitalized on the existing holidays. But he wasn’t too big on that idea personally.
According to Howard University History Professor Daryl Michael Scott, Woodson wanted the week to build “from the study of two great men to a broader examination of a great race. Though he admired both men, Woodson had never been fond of the celebrations held in their honor…Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. He envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man.”
Negro History and Literature Week was never supposed to be about just two men, one of whom was white. It was supposed to honor the “countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.”
So rather than using Black History Month — the eventual legacy of Negro History and Literature Week — to celebrate Douglass and Lincoln, let’s celebrate one of the countless black men and women who contributed to the advance of human civilization: Carter Woodson.
Woodson was born to former slaves in Virginia. When he was 17, he got a job in the coal mines in West Virginia to pay for school. He got his high school diploma in two years and earned his college degree while serving as principal of his former high school (which was, ironically enough, named for Frederick Douglass.) In 1912, he was the second African-American ever to earn a doctorate at Harvard University, after W.E.B. DuBois.
Woodson believed that African-American history had been marginalized and founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, which still exists today. The Association published a series of books on migration, history and education in African-American communities. Woodson also performed the first survey of freed slaves.
He was a contemporary of DuBois, Marcus Garvey and T. Thomas Fortune, and was an important member of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the NAACP.
But Woodson’s greatest contribution to the history he was so dedicated to preserving was Negro History and Literature Week, started in 1926. He believed that racial prejudice was “merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”
Woodson elicited support from black fraternities and social groups and was stunned by the response. The ASALH could barely keep up with demand for curriculum and materials to teach black history, and formed branches of the association across the country.
Of course, as Scott notes, “In America, nothing popular escapes either commercialization or eventual trivialization, and so Woodson, the constant reformer, had his hands full in promoting celebrations worthy of the people who had made the history.”
Though he had to fight the tide of over-simplification, Woodson’s hard work was rewarded. In 1976, 16 years after Woodson died, Negro History and Literature Week was upgraded to Black History Month.
And 41 years after that, in the early days of 2017, everyone rolled their eyes at elected officials attributing Black History Month to Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson’s ultimate goal of elevating the black community beyond those two famous names: achieved.