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Reconstructing the Curriculum
“Every year about this time someone asks us whether we think we should continue the annual observance of Negro History Week,” the editors of the Baltimore Afro-American wrote in 1950. In explaining why the Negro History Week was still necessary, the Afro-American editors pointed to Life magazine’s recently published mid-century special issue “American Life and Times, 1900–1950,” which, they argued, “followed a pattern established by many historians, movie producers, newspapers, national advertisers etc. of completely ignoring an important segment of America’s population or else of depicting that segment in an unfavorable light.” The editors praised the “schools, churches, press, radio, and civic organizations” that celebrated Negro History Week and communicated information about black history and culture, but stressed that much work remained to be done. “A few may know of Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, but how many know of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Dr. Ernest Just, Richard Wright, Mrs. Mary Bethune, Dr. Mordecai Johnson and hundreds of others?” the editors asked. “Yes, we would like to see the day when the observance of Negro History Week will no longer be necessary—when there will be just one history of America which will be all-inclusive and objective. That day, however, no matter how optimistic we may be, is still a long way off.”37
This 1950 Afro-American editorial is representative of how black newspapers regularly examined Negro History Week’s contemporary relevance. Such articles and editorials retold the history of Negro History Week and saw the celebration as a way to counter the false images of black history and culture found in textbooks and popular media. In the process, African-American newspapers encouraged readers to see history as contested terrain that had a material impact on the life chances of black people.
Articles and editorials in African-American newspapers called attention to how textbooks and other official histories frequently disparaged or ignored black history. “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every book he studies,” Woodson said in the Chicago Defender in 1931.38 A 1929 editorial in the Norfolk Journal and Guide suggested that students were well aware of limitations of their textbooks: “Practically every Negro high school student who goes about his history class today is irritably conscious of the fact that the history texts as prescribed for his study are woefully and discriminately lacking in the recital of the past of his own race in relation to the growth and development of civilization.”39 Other editorials placed the blame squarely on white historians for ignoring or distorting the contributions of African-Americans. “The failure of the white historians to place the Negro in the proper historical context was in Dr. Woodson’s view a studied attempt to obliterate his cultural past and record,” the Chicago Defender editors wrote in 1947.40 The Defender struck a similar tone during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “Negro History Week looms more and more as an important occasion as the struggle for recognition and equality gains momentum and intensity,” the editors wrote. “For years white historians have deliberately failed to give the Negro his proper place in the evolution of this American culture.”41
African-Americans newspapers also directed criticism at other forms of popular media for their coverage of black culture. The Chicago Defender praised Negro History Week for “making us forget…the lies which have been printed in books, broadcast over radios and told in pictures and newspapers about us for so many years.”42 The Atlanta Daily World criticized white daily newspapers for only covering black people when they committed, or were accused of committing, crimes. “Front page publicity has always been available for those of the race committing petty thievery, murder and those things which some believe attest the inferiority and criminal tendencies of the Negro,” the Daily World editors wrote. “Such practices have served in many instances of making the Negro ashamed of himself and commending him to his more tolerant friends as a person unworthy of citizenship.” The Daily World editors went on to argue that “the sponsors of Negro History Week are correcting this evil,” and emphasized the important role black newspaper archives played in telling different histories: “The students of the schools, not only have before them those whose achievements commend them to the already printed page, but that restless search in the archives of current history for those who have yet remained undiscovered. Old pamphlets, newspaper files and private letters are stirred up in that survey to find worthwhile things, long obscured to the credit of the Negro.”43 Speaking at Shaw University’s Negro History Week celebration in 1939, Norfolk Journal and Guide editor P. B. Young also criticized white newspapers for their limited representations of black people. “If one regarded the Negro from the viewpoint of a great portion of the news appearing in the daily press one would get the impression that the Negro is an inveterate criminal or a confirmed and complete comic strip,” he said. In contrast, Young argued, black newspapers played a different role: “It is our purpose to let 1,000,000 copies of more than three hundred Negro papers to tell the other side of the story as well as that so emphasized in other papers.”44 Viewed from this angle, African-American newspaper editors saw Negro History Week as part of a daily struggle over who would communicate information about black history and culture and for what purpose.
By encouraging readers to see the making of history as an everyday struggle, African-American newspapers made it clear that Negro History Week was not an isolated celebration limited to February. Woodson, for example, described Negro History Week in the Chicago Defender as a “reorientation process,” and suggested in the Philadelphia Tribune, “during Negro History Week we should emphasize the reconstruction of the curricula.”45 Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would eventually reincorporate black history into American history and make the study of African-American history a year-round effort. “The aim of the Negro History week is to bring about the Negro History Year when we shall study the Negro as much as we study the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, and the Teuton,” Woodson suggested in 1935.46 Woodson made a similar point two years later in the Norfolk Journal and Guide: “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History advocates and promotes the study of the Negro every day during the entire school year.”47
One of the ways black newspapers supported this everyday approach to history was by featuring illustrated biographical profiles of black figures. The next section highlights how these historical profiles brought African-American history to readers throughout the year.