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The History of Black History Month: Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s fight for reform

Feb 19, 2021

Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youngest-ever inaugural poet, delivered these words on January 20 at the swearing in of the new president and vice president:

“Being American is more than the pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

Heeding Gorman’s words, we must look to the past so that we may move forward. We must study our history and acknowledge it to build toward a fairer future. That belief is at the heart and foundation of Black History Month. 

Photographic portrait of Carter G. Woodson.
Carter G. Woodson, 1947. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress

The Father of Black History

Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), “the father of Black History,” believed that the only way to achieve racial equality was through the study and elevation of Black excellence. Woodson’s beliefs were not new or unique. Like many who came before him, Woodson believed that education would show the world that African Americans helped build, shape, and bring prosperity to the United States.

Carter Godwin Woodson was born in Virginia, the son of formerly enslaved parents. He spent his life pursuing education and was primarily self-taught in his early years. In 1912 he received a doctorate in history from Harvard University, the second African American, after sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, to earn this distinction. He went on to work as a school educator and administrator, journalist, and historian. Seeing the effects of white supremacist Jim Crow segregation laws in the South and the devastating toll that the lynching of Black people was taking on the country, Woodson searched for a way to both elevate his community and make white Americans recognize the contributions of African Americans to society.

Education, Abolition, and the Racial Divide

Learning in the face of opposition is a theme that exists throughout African American history. For nearly 250 years in early America, every colony (and then, every state) prohibited or restricted Black education. Although slavery was illegal in New England by the early nineteenth century, education was no easier to obtain for those who were said to be free. A common misconception is that free Black Northerners were safe from enslavement and lived with the same advantages as their white neighbors. However, freedom in New England was tenuous, as glaring economic and social inequalities were a daily part of living. The existence of slavery in the Southern states was a constant threat to free Black Northerners; they could be kidnapped under the guise of fugitive slave laws and sold into bondage in the South. This unstable existence pushed free Black people to search for a way to not only end slavery but to see themselves and be treated as equal citizens. That aim forged the inextricable link between education and abolition.

In his 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson wrote, “The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other people.” His view is apparent in the efforts made in the 1840s on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Education petitions pointed out that segregated schools were both injurious to students and an insult to the African American community. They went as far as to equate the situation with being in a South Carolina jail. This comparison drew parallels between Southern slavery and Northern racial prejudice, criticizing Massachusetts and exposing the hypocrisy of the North.

In 1839, seventeen-year-old Eunice Ross of Nantucket was seeking a high school to attend. Like so many other schools designated for the free Black community, Nantucket’s did not provide high school classes, nor did it receive funding equal to its white counterparts. Public school segregation became a major debate, with those in favor of segregation accusing abolitionists of “race mixing” and calling African Americans inferior. Abolitionists fought back, stating the need for equal education and the issues that resulted from segregating students. Despite passing the high school entrance exam and being one of the most qualified who took it, Ross was denied entry because of the color of her skin. Nantucket’s African American community rallied around Ross. There is no record of Ross ever attending the high school but in 1847, all Nantucket public schools began admitting African American students.

The Birth of Black History Month

Woodson’s desire to bring African American history and American history together would lead to the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1916. Woodson was one of a few historians who brought light to the struggle of African Americans in the North and their fight for education. He noted that by 1850, there were 2,038 free Blacks in Boston with approximately 1,500 enrolled in schools. Woodson launched Negro History Week in February 1926, selecting the period that contained the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). In 1970, Black educators and students at Kent State University in Ohio extended the week to a month-long commemoration. Black History Month was adopted nationwide in 1976 during the celebration of the U.S. bicentennial. Recognition has since expanded to Canada and the British Isles.

Black History Month would not only educate whites but also remind African Americans about their long and arduous journey. A journey filled with struggle and determination. A testimony to those like Eunice Ross who fought hard to remind the country of their humanity and their right to equal citizenship. Woodson believed that at some point, Black History Month would no longer be needed. As February draws to a close, it is obvious that it is needed more than ever. Black History Month serves as a reminder to respect, protect, and honor Black lives and to tell the stories that are often dismissed, overlooked, and forgotten. It is in the stories of these pioneers that we can find the strength to continue to move forward and, one day, fully achieve Woodson’s dream.

See more ways to engage with the stories of Black New Englanders, past and present.

Erica Ciallela, a volunteer at Historic New England’s Study Center, holds a master of fine arts degree in history and a master of library information and science. She also volunteers at the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, Connecticut. The museum was the site of the Canterbury Female Boarding School, where in 1833-1834 town residents violently opposed Crandall’s efforts to educate Black students.