Ninety-three years of Black History programs, celebrations, and teachings of about the descendants of African people were made possible by a single act. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the creation of “Negro History Week.” The precursor to what is known today as Black History Month, the week wasn’t initially met with a welcoming response. As historians have tried to pinpoint Woodson’s initial reason for creating the weeklong observance, many agree that a negative interaction at Harvard University played a critical role in its creation.
Woodson shared with a colleague that one of his professors at Harvard, during a class lecture, made the statement that “the negro has no history.” Woodson is said to have challenged his professor by saying “no people lacked a history.” His professor, Edwards Channing, challenged Woodson to prove him wrong. In addition, Woodson faced harsh criticism from W.E. B. DuBois. As the first Black graduate of Harvard University, DuBois was notably unkind to Woodson in the reviews of some of his published work. DuBois and Woodson had different approaches in both study, style and focus of Negro life and culture. Ultimately, it would be Woodson that would come to be known as the “father of Black History”.
It was Woodson’s work, that reminds me of a quote from Dr. Mae C. Jeminson in which she says “never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” As an astronaut and physician, Jemison was the first African-American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program and to travel to space. Woodson’s act or decision, to not only research, but document Black history, served as a foundation for Jeminson’s understanding of what was possible. She didn’t need to imagine greatness, she could read about it.
Black history comprises a series of acts, some big and some small. Whether the endurance to survive slavery, the ability to introduce ideas, concepts, and inventions that have changed the course of our life, the Negro does have a history. It didn’t just start with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirited activism, or Shirley Chisholm’s demanding a seat at the political table.
Although historic, Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States is but a chapter in Black history. However, like Dubois and Woodson, there are disagreements today regarding what constitutes a proper review of history, whether Black history should only be told through the annals of “American history” and what influence does racism and bias play in the way in which we discuss Black history.
Wherever you fall along the spectrum, we have all benefited from Woodson’s act to definitively define a time to discuss Black life. His act led to the act of faculty and teachers at Kent State University to extend Black history to a month-long celebration. His act continues to support Woodson’s belief espoused in 1939 that “the aim of this generation should be to collect the records of the Negro and treat them scientifically in order that the race may not become a negligible factor in the thought of the world”. So, I ask each of you, what will be your act to contribute to Black history’s preservation?