Carter Godwin Woodson

The Father of Black History

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 1

Black History Month is an annual observation that originated in the United States and is now celebrated in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands (although the latter three nations celebrate in October as opposed to February).

Black History Month was first celebrated at Kent State University in February 1970, before being officially recognised in 1976 by United States President Gerald Ford, who urged Americans to:

“Seize the opportunity to honour the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

However, the drive to honour black history did not begin with Gerald Ford's recognition of Black History Month, or even with the celebrations at Kent State University. Several black leaders had indeed spoken about the importance of recognising and celebrating black history.

Marcus Garvey famously explained that:

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."

Whilst Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is quoted as saying:

"The American Negro must rebuild his past in order to make his future... History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generation must repair and offset."

Despite this, it is Dr Carter Godwin Woodson, who is recognised as the father of African American history. A historian, author and activist, Woodson is responsible for Negro History Week, a celebration of black history he pioneered in 1926.

The notion of black history, or the black man in history, was inconceivable during these times, history was essentially the romanticised renderings of the pseudo-heroic exploits of white men.

Woodson observed that contributions of the black populace were:

"Overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them."

Woodson was tenacious in his mission to promulgate black endeavours, both historical and contemporary; founding The Journal of Negro History in 1916, one of the first scholarly publications to feature the African in history.

The journal served, not only as an eminent source of black history, but it also gave scholars a chance to publish articles that highlighted their history, culture and experiences. The journal also pushed gender boundaries, with female authors contributing to three times as many publications as other notable journals of the time.

For Woodson, learning about black history served two purposes:

  • To build up a sense of black pride

  • To dismiss racist myths about supposed 'black inferiority'

Woodson explained:

"To justify the injustice done to the Negro, individuals... resort to malicious falsehood in saying that the Negro is an inferior race..."

Woodson's legacy as the father of African American history is seen in his determination to ensure that black people were recognised as active participants, not only in American history, but in world history. His work has inspired countless other scholars to read, learn, write, publish, celebrate and recognise our history.