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Carter G. Woodson & African-American History Month

Published Feb 3, 2010 5:25 PM

February 2010 represents the 84th anniversary of the founding of Negro History Week, now known as African-American History Month. This month of commemoration was initiated by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who worked tirelessly for many years to popularize the dissemination and study of the history of African people in the United States and throughout the world.

Carter G. Woodson

Woodson originally came from New Canton, Virginia, where he was born on Dec. 19, 1875. Born into a poor Southern family and having to work in the coal mines of Kentucky, he was unable to enroll in high school until he was 20 years old.

He later attended the University of Chicago and Harvard University, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1912, the second African American to receive this degree after W.E.B. DuBois in 1896.

W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson and other African-American historians took on the challenge of refuting the racist propaganda disguised as history, which sought to provide the ideological justification for the mass enslavement of African people and the continuation of Jim Crow laws and racist terror.

Before DuBois and Woodson

One of the major contributions of historians such as DuBois and Woodson is that they scientifically challenged and debunked the myths of the “Southern slave-owning aristocracy” and “Black docility.” These views could no longer stand up to the research presented in the narratives the African-American historians developed.

What is often deemphasized in the historical remembrance of African slavery in U.S. society is the high level of resistance by the captives to the plantations owners, overseers and the legal codes that reinforced this system of exploitation. Notions and theories of African slave resistance were largely absent from the scholarly treatment of this long episode in the history of North America until relatively recent times. One of the early 20th-century historians, Ulrich B. Phillips, did much to advance the racist views of Southern former-slave-owning families and their communities.

W.E.B. DuBois

In Phillips’ book entitled “American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime,” published originally in 1918, he contends that the overwhelming tendency among Southern slave holders was a liberalized form of administrative control, which resembles a patriarchal or paternalistic model of slave management.

As a result of the biased views held by Phillips and other white historians, their flawed emphasis and interpretation of data lead the reader to no particular insights or conclusions related to the African slave as a conscious human being within the production process taking place within Southern society as a whole.

All of the viewpoints presented by observers of the slave system in Phillips’ work reinforce the idea of the inferiority of African peoples and the supposed moral fortitude of the Southern slave owners. These views of the slave-master relationship contend that is is the natural order of things between Africans and Europeans.

The birth of African-American Studies

However, new schools of thought arose during the early 20th century to counteract the apologists for the antebellum slave system and the rebel confederacy during the Civil War. DuBois declared in 1909 that the cultural presence of the ancestral origins of the slaves played a significant role in shaping the character of American life: “The mystic spell of Africa is and ever was over all America. It has guided her hardest work, inspired her finest literature, and sung her sweetest songs. Her greatest destiny — unsensed and despised though it be — is to give back to the first of continents the gifts which Africa of old gave to America’s fathers’ fathers.”

According to Jacqueline Goggin in her political biography, “Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History”: “In 1915 he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to encourage scholars to engage in the intensive study of the past as it related to Africans and their descendants through the world. Prior to this work, the field had been largely neglected or distorted in the hands of historians who accepted the traditionally biased picture of Blacks in American and world affairs.”

In 1916 Woodson founded the “Journal of Negro History,” which remained an important scholarly publication under his direction for more than 30 years. His academic work led him to Howard University and West Virginia State College as a professor and administrator.

Over the years he authored numerous important books, including “The Negro in Our History” (1922), “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861” (1915) and “A Century of Negro Migration” (1918). In 1933, during the Great Depression, he published his best known work, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” where he attacked the white capitalist influence over schooling designed for African Americans during the early 20th century.

In this book there is a chapter entitled “Political Education Neglected,” where Woodson writes: “Even the few Negroes who are elected to office are often similarly uninformed and show a lack of vision. They have given little attention to the weighty problems of the nation; and in the legislative bodies to which they are elected, they restrict themselves as a rule to matters of special concern to the Negroes themselves, such as lynching, segregation and disenfranchisement, which they have well learned by experience.”

Woodson then goes on to point out that the contributions of African-American elected officials during Reconstruction were broader: “This indicates a step backwards, for the Negroes who sat in Congress and in the State Legislatures during the Reconstruction worked for the enactment of measures of concern to all elements of the population regardless of color. Historians have not yet forgotten what those Negroes statesmen did in advocating public education, internal improvements, labor arbitration, the tariff, and the merchant marine.”

Woodson’s legacy and the African-American struggle

Woodson died in 1950 at the age of 75. He did not live to see the emergence of the mass civil rights and Black power struggles starting in the mid-1950s and extending through the early 1970s. He was unable to witness the emergence of a militant student movement in 1960 that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the later Black Panther Party.

It was during these times that the movement demanding the implementation of African-American Studies programs in K-12 education and in institutions of higher learning emerged. Tremendous protests were carried out at numerous schools, colleges and universities that won concessions introducing course work that recognized the contributions and essential role of African Americans in U.S. and world affairs.

The work of Woodson, DuBois and other African-American scholars provided the intellectual basis for the advancement of ethnic and multicultural studies. Every major school district and institution of higher learning has seen intense debate and struggle over the character of the academic curriculum and the admission and status of African Americans and other oppressed people of color in the United States.

Despite these gains of the adoption of African-American and multicultural studies programs and curriculums, as well as admission of people of color to historically white institutions, the current economic crisis has witnessed the wholesale attack on such gains made during the civil rights and Black power era. Today school districts and colleges are cutting back and laying off educational workers who gained their positions as a result of the mass movements over the last five decades.

These attacks on higher education and their disproportionate impact on African Americans and other oppressed people must be taken up in the current student movement against the major downsizing taking place in all areas of education in the U.S. With the upcoming March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education, students and educational workers must demand the continuation, restoration and full funding of all academic programs that serve the oppressed and exploited groups who have traditionally been excluded from positions of power and influence in the country.

These major cutbacks in education funding must be rejected, and students and workers should demand that money be taken away from the banks and the Pentagon and given to the people to ensure quality education for all. The interests of youth and workers must supersede those of the corporations and the military.