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February 25, 2002

Carter Woodson and his legacy

Leroy Davis is associate professor of history and associate director
of the African American Studies program.


This month at Emory we join the nation in celebrating the annual observance of African American History Month. Carter Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 and introduced “Negro History Week” (the genesis of our contemporary monthly observance) in 1926.

Woodson’s story, like so many of African descent in his generation, included consistent struggle to overcome extraordinary odds. Born in 1875, Woodson emerged from the cotton fields and coal mines of Virginia and West Virginia to become “Dr. Woodson” with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. When he received his degree in 1912, Woodson became arguably the first of slave parentage in black America to do so (Woodson’s parents were slaves, unlike the free black ancestry of DuBois, the first black to earn a Ph.D. in history in 1895).

The “Good Doctor,” as he was sometimes affectionately called, later traveled extensively throughout Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, researching and recording the historical experiences of African peoples. Yet even then, he did not spend all his time in the archives. Woodson’s travels abroad awakened him to the harsh realities of black life under colonialism.

Woodson was convinced that colonial powers (which included the United States) presumed peoples of African descent had little history worth recording or had made few, if any, contributions to human civilization. “History,” Woodson concluded, reflected a “Euro-centered” view of the world—a narrative of European and American accomplishments—built upon the backs of enslaved and colonized peoples, whose “history” (and “herstory,” by the way) commenced only with European arrival on their shores.

It is now common knowledge that Woodson also believed the invisibility of African peoples in the historical literature (and subsequently history textbooks) wreaked havoc on black self-esteem, providing another roadblock to an emancipatory group ideology. To correct and contribute to a counter-narrative of historical experience became Woodson’s life work.

This month’s observance sent me whirling back into the past as I reflected on my longstanding and deep connections to the principles and convictions of Woodson’s vision. I left the military on Aug. 4, 1970, convinced that college was the next step and that eventually I would major in both history and African American studies at Howard University in Washington. It was in that period, between May 1970 and February 1974, that I really discovered the importance of Woodson’s vision, the ASALH (renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and its distinguished journal, The Journal of Negro History.

Between my full-time job as a factory worker on the “graveyard shift” and taking at least three classes at a local community college, I managed to do some labor organizing for the Black Worker’s Coalition (part of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement—or DRUM—in Detroit), serve as the president of my school’s black student organization (called the Black Students Union) and work in a couple of other black organizations.

In addition I operated an independent African-centered community school (there were plenty of them in those days) on Saturdays in the housing project where I grew up and spent most of my time. It was the work at the school that I enjoyed most, which led me directly to the ASALH with its annually packaged “Black History Kit.”

I needed to know more, so I went to the ASALH annual conference. I had read all of the standard fare that all participants in the Black Power Movement were expected to read, and I could “rap”—then defined as talking ad infinitum about black experiences, our conditions, “the white man,” etc.—with the best of them.

But this was different. As I perused the seemingly unending display of books at the conference hotel, I happened upon the Journal of Negro History with its detailed scholarly articles of every subject imaginable on Africa, the United States and practically everywhere else in the Diaspora. I quickly purchased a subscription.

Before I left Louisville to attend Howard in 1974, I read articles from the journal that helped me to think historically about my activism. I was particularly struck by articles on the development of black education in the United States and throughout the Diaspora, which became a major focus of my own scholarly work. This information was indispensable to my work at the Saturday school, and I continued to think and read about these issues even after I left Louisville for Washington. So much of Woodson’s vision helped me to bridge the gap between “town and gown,” to use history specifically in community initiatives that would in my view contribute to the liberation of African and other oppressed peoples everywhere.

Two important concepts are often overlooked in our commemorations of Woodson’s vision and his contribution to interracial understanding both in and outside of the academy. First, as we have seen in Woodson’s own work, black life experiences went beyond just those of black Americans. However, the monthly observance rarely reflects the existence of an Africa Diaspora and the connections between experiences in Africa and elsewhere.

Though it occurred with obviously the best intentions, renaming the observance “African American” (instead of “Black”) History month more than a decade ago may have contributed to this more limited celebration of African experience. That, however, might soon change. Increasingly the observance is being called “African American or African Heritage Month” though I’m not yet quite sure what these terms mean within the context of the monthly observance. More promising is the amount of immigration of African peoples from all over the “Black World” into the United States (especially Atlanta). Africans, and folk from elsewhere in the Diaspora, are increasingly demanding recognition of their experiences, and in my mind that is a good thing. It more reflects the work of Woodson and his vision.

The second concept often overlooked in our celebration of Woodson’s vision is the link he made between academic excellence and social responsibility to community outside the “ivory tower.” Ironically, we at Emory also celebrate this month the 30th anniversary of our own African American Studies Program, and I could not refrain from thinking about obvious connections. Led by Delores Aldridge and other founding directors more than 30 years ago, programs like ours and others across the country built a discipline generally accepted in the academy that privileges equally academic excellence and social responsibility—the inextricable link between “town and gown.”

I often say I think it is a privilege to live in the metropolitan Atlanta area where Emory is located, and with that privilege comes an “obligation.” For that reason we need to use whatever skills we have in the academy to help solve the myriad of problems that exist in our larger community.

Though usually unacknowledged in our annual monthly observance, Woodson’s vision and work in many ways contributed to this paradigm, fully developed by many in black or Africana studies programs in the late ’60s and early ’70s. On the academic excellence side, Woodson’s vision served as an oppositional force to counter racism in the academy and provided a perspective often missing in academia and then in mainstream scholarly journals.

Yet Woodson also was acutely aware of the problems existing within African communities outside of the academy and used his skills as a scholar to influence the policies of organizations directly involved in social problems of the rank and file. I hope someday that our celebration of the African American History Month annual observance will include a broader recognition of black life experiences and help lift up for all Woodson’s vision of academic excellence and social responsibility both within and outside of the academy.