Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Black History Month Story


From The Black Collegian: The ongoing discussion of the necessity to study Black History has persisted for more than 100 years. The early initiatives were defensive in nature and sought to prove the worthiness of Black people to be a part of the body politic of this nation and in fact, members of the human race. From the 1660s, when Virginia and Maryland institutionalized slavery, Black people felt it necessary to justify their existence. The young nation issued a fugitive slave law, extended the slave trade for 20 years, and the U.S. Constitution spelled out the less-than-human status of the children of Africa by designating them three-fifths of a person. After the government laid the foundation for white supremacy, various individuals joined the chorus touting the inferiority of Black folk. (source: The Black Collegian)

A college professor, a noted governor and the president of the United States supported white supremacy. Dr. Thomas Dew of William and Mary attempted to justify the institution of slavery by saying that Africans "[differ] from us [whites] in color and habits and [are] vastly inferior in the scale of civilization." George McDuffie, the Governor of South Carolina, added that African slavery was "destined by providence, evidenced by the color of their skin and intellectual inferiority and natural improvidence of this race." (source: The Black Collegian)

And Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, suggested that he would assign the superior status to whites, and supported Black colonization because he doubted the ability of free Black people to live successfully among whites.



Enter historians of the African/ African-American experiences to debunk the myths and escalate the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. The first years of the 20th century witnessed the pioneers and the first professionally trained historians of African descent. In 1897, W.E.B. DuBois' Harvard University doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, was published as the first volume of the prestigious Harvard Historical Classics. DuBois published many other books including The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction. In addition, he was a founding member of the NAACP, an the first editor of the organization's The Crisis magazine. In 1939 he founded Phylon, Atlanta University's "Review of Race and Culture." Of his studies about the African and African- American experience, DuBois said, "My attention from the first was focused on democracy and democratic development and upon the problem of the admission of my people into the freedom of democracy."1 (source: The Black Collegian)

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, another Harvard graduate, organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The following year he published the first issue of The Journal of Negro History. According to Woodson, The Journal was created for "the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, the study of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in this field, and the promotion of harmony between the races by acquainting the one with the other."2 The Journal of Negro History has been the most enduring of scholarly works on Black people. In 1926 Woodson developed the concept for the celebration of "Negro History Week," which has evolved into African American History Month, observed in February each year. Earl E. Thorpe author of Black Historians – A Critique, wrote of DuBois and Woodson, "Both were far more prolific than any Negro historian before or since, and both felt it necessary to adhere rigidly to the canons of objectivity and scientific procedure. Together with their admirers and disciples, these two men "made" modern Negro historiography." 3 (source: The Black Collegian)

Of the early historians, DuBois and Woodson are the most noted. Though there are those contributors of note before and after these two giants, the most noted pre-20th century historian is George Washington Williams, who some call the father of Black history. He had been a soldier, a Baptist minister, a lawyer and an Ohio legislator when he became interested in Black history while preparing for a lecture on services rendered to America by descendents of Africa. He found such an abundance of sources that he felt it necessary to write a general history of the "Negro." He retired from public life and worked for seven years researching and writing his monumental A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. Although Williams is the most noted, others included Robert Benjamin Lewis, James W.C. Pennington, William Wells Brown, William Stills, and Benjamin Brawley, among others. (source: The Black Collegian)


There is a large group of 20th century lay scholars who were not professionally trained as historians or social scientists, but who have made considerable contributions to the research, writing, and preservation of Black history. Of these, Thorpe writes, "The lay Negro historians of this period represent that group of non-professional persons, in all periods, who have a fondness for the discipline of history, feeling that their life experiences peculiarly fit them for chronicling some historical events."4 These include such notables as Arthur Schomburg, John Wesley Cromwell, Kelly Miller, J.A. Rogers, John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Ben Jochannon, John Jackson, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, among others. (source: The Black Collegian)

One would be remiss if the names of Charles H. Wesley, Monroe Nathan Work, Merl R. Eppse, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, and George G.M. James were not mentioned in such an account. And of course the professional ranks of Black historians would be incomplete without the giants Rayford W. Logan, William Sherman Savage, Lorenzo Greene, Luther P. Jackson, Benjamin Quarles, Lawrence Reddick, William Brewer, Clinton E. Knox, Eric Williams and John Hope Franklin. (source: The Black Collegian)

These scholars and many others laid the foundation and kept the flame burning for our history. Even when it was not popular, and in spite of loud denunciations by some, and almost a deafness of silence by others, they dedicated their lives to guarantee that Black history would not remain "Lost, Stolen or Strayed." (source: The Black Collegian)


Carter G. Woodson Tribute

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