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Remembering the Father of Black History

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s a good time to remember Carter G. Woodson, who is known as the Father of Black history and who in 1926 created the forerunner of Black History Month—Negro History Week.

At the time, the idea that African Americans might have a history worth preserving and studying was radical. That Black history wasn’t taught in schools went beyond widespread prejudice against Black people. The history hadn’t been collected and synthesized in a scholarly way that made it available to teach. It was Woodson who painstakingly collected the previously ignored public records, letters, speeches, newspaper clippings, folklore, and autobiographies that comprised his pioneering social histories chronicling the lives of Black people.

He was a prolific author. From 1915 until 1947, he published four monographs, five textbooks, five edited collections of documents, five sociological studies, and thirteen articles. He founded The Journal of Negro History in 1915, a year when, according to various sources, approximately fifty-five African Americans were lynched and two years after President Woodrow Wilson began segregating the previously integrated federal workforce.

The void in Black history was so large that when Woodson’s first book The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 was published in 1915, it was reviewed in the New York Times in tandem with America’s Greatest Problem: The Negro by R. W. Shufeldt, which claimed that Black people had never “contributed a single line to literature worth the printing; a single cog in the machine of invention; an idea to any science.”

Woodson’s most influential work, The Mis-Education of the Negro, was published in 1933. In it he argued that the lack of education about Black history and culture in the public school system was a component of white supremacy designed to keep Black people subservient: 

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.

And despite his success in compiling and promoting Black history, Woodson, as the Washington Post notes, was clear that Black history was American history: “It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week,” he wrote. “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History.”

Woodson’s impact went beyond his own work. He donated the large body of primary source material on Black history he collected to the Library of Congress, where it would be accessible to other researchers. He gave a number of young Black scholars their start, including Luther Porter Jackson. Jackson’s books such as Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia, 1830–1860 (1942) and Negro Office Holders in Virginia(1945) challenged negative racial stereotypes and historical misconceptions about Blacks in the Commonwealth, documenting increasing property ownership and political participation—at least until Jim Crow policies stifled such participation at the turn of the twentieth century.

That The Mis-Education of the Negro remains in print more than ninety years after its publication speaks to its continuing relevance and the continued importance of Black History Month in telling the full story of the Commonwealth’s history.

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