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By Matthew Delmont, Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University
On February 24, 1934, the Pittsburgh Courier featured an article from historian Carter G. Woodson highlighting “‘Forgotten Negroes’: Who Played Major Roles in the Race’s March of Progress.” Woodson’s name and achievements would have been familiar to readers of the Courier and other African-American newspapers. In 1915, Woodson helped found the Journal of Negro History and the Association for the Study of Negro Life, which later became the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson continued to encourage the study of African-American history and culture and in 1926, he guided the first Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in 1976. “Not to know what one's race has done in former times is to continue always a child,” Woodson argued. “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."
In this 1934 Courier article, Woodson called attention to a number of African-American historical figures that deserved to be better known. “I have been deeply struck with the fact that with the exception of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, the heroes of our past are almost forgotten,” Woodson wrote. “Some few use the names of Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley, and figures like Andrew Bryan, Lott Carey, Richard Allen, James Varick and Daniel A. Payne live only as religious characters whose memory is revered largely in the churches…In fact, the Negroes are about in the same position as the whole nation would be if we remembered only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.” Woodson went on to list a “galaxy of brilliant stars,” such as James Fortan, Charles Lenox, David Ruggles, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, “whose names should be familiar in every household.”
I have been thinking about Woodson a lot this month as I have been working on a new digital history project, “Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers.” Each day this project features historical articles from black newspapers such as the Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and Philadelphia Tribune. These newspapers—digitized as part of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers - Black Newspapers collection—are among the most important sources for understanding black history and culture in the twentieth century. By emphasizing the ordinary or mundane aspects of history on the “Black Quotidian” website, I hope both to call attention to people and events that are not commonly featured in textbooks, documentaries, or Black History Month celebrations while also casting new light on well-known black history subjects.
In researching Carter G. Woodson I found a fascinating selection of articles from 1926 that highlight early efforts to support and promote Negro History Week. These articles make it clear that Black History Month grew from ambitious but humble origins. The Philadelphia Tribune (February 6, 1926), for example, encouraged readers to write directly to Woodson to request pamphlets and study materials on African-American history: “Write Dr. C.G. Woodson 1538 Ninth Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. The investment of a two cents stamp will be the best investment you ever made." The Baltimore Afro-American (February 20, 1926) reported on local efforts to celebrate African-American history, which makes it clear how many teachers, parents, citizens, and students were involved in making Negro History Week a reality.
These articles from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers - Black Newspapers collection (which I have accessed through Arizona State University Libraries) helped me better understand a time when Carter G. Woodson, an iconic figure in black history, was someone with whom ordinary black Americans could correspond. As a historian, these articles also helped me situate myself in the long tradition of scholars and educators who have worked to present African American history to new audiences in new ways.