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Collecting and Communicating African-American History
In his Chicago Defender column “Here to Yonder,” poet Langston Hughes praised Carter G. Woodson. “America owes Dr. Woodson a debt of great gratitude,” Hughes wrote in 1945. “For many years now he has labored in the cause of Negro history, and his labors have begun to bear a most glorious fruit. Year by year the observance of Negro History Week has grown. Today the week is observed all across America.” Hughes, who worked as Woodson’s assistant in the 1920s, encouraged readers to write Woodson for materials about African-American history. “If this column in this newspaper reaches into some nook or corner of our country where Negro History Week is not being observed, and if you reading this now should not know how to get hold of materials to help you observe this important week…write to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1538 Ninth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., and ask him to send you a list of their publications and photographs.” The address for Woodson’s home office was shared regularly in the black press. The Philadelphia Tribune, for example, promised readers in 1926 that if they wrote Woodson, “the investment of a two cents stamp will be the best investment you ever made.”25 Thousands of interested teachers, preachers, and citizens wrote to Woodson because, as Hughes phrased it, “Dr. Carter G. Woodson has recorded the dates and data of our struggle for a place in the democratic sun.”26
Collecting and communicating the “dates and data” of African-American history was a massive undertaking. Woodson and the ASNLH staff appealed to scholars, schoolteachers, and professionals to solicit primary sources related to black history, and appealed to philanthropic organizations to support these collection efforts. To record and circulate information about African-American history, Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History (a scholarly journal) and Negro History Bulletin (a history magazine pitched to schoolteachers), as well as Associated Publishers Press, which published several black history monographs and textbooks, including Woodson’s The Negro in Our History (1922) and Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). With Woodson as the leader, the ASNLH editorial and administrative staff collected and published a wealth of historical material and maintained connections with educational institutions, social welfare organizations, churches, community groups, and individuals across the country who were interested in African-American history.27
Black newspapers supported the ASNLH’s efforts and amplified Woodson’s message. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, newspapers ran articles (some written by Woodson or reprinted from the Journal of Negro History) encouraging readers to collect important historical evidence and to share the message of Negro History Week as broadly as possible. The Baltimore Afro-American, for example, carried a piece by Woodson in 1933 on the importance of “saving the records of the Negro” for future historians. “In the homes of Negroes…are valuable manuscripts like letters, diaries, wills, deeds, bills of sale, manumission papers and the like in which are hidden the facts of Negro history not mentioned in the books, newspapers, and magazines of our day,” Woodson wrote. “To have these data on hand to pass them on to the fair-minded investigators of tomorrow that they may tell the story of the race when this generation is no more—this is the challenge that comes to every Negro and to every friend of the race who has any regard for the future of this people.”28 The Norfolk Journal and Guide ran a similar article under the headline, “People Unwittingly Foil Efforts of Historians Through Inability to Know Worth of Documents They Possess."29
A 1927 Pittsburgh Courier editorial emphasized the importance of these collection efforts. “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History is trying its very best to establish in the mind of the world the fact that the Negro has a history worthy of record,” the editors wrote. “For Dr. Carter G. Woodson has been devoting his entire time to a careful collection of authentic acts and deeds performed by Negroes. He has been connecting the lives of individuals, the happenings of communities and the changing habitats of Negroes for the purpose of handing down to the future reading world some undeniable truths concerning this race of ours.” Preparing for the second celebration of Negro History Week, the Courier editors pledged their support to ASNLH and Woodson: “The Pittsburgh Courier joins readily in spreading the news [of Negro History Week] to its readers and urging them to join heartily in this week of celebration…Let us support Dr. Woodson. Let us help him unearth the hidden secrets of our tribe.”30 These appeals for everyday people to gather historical materials and share them with ASNLH—what today we would call crowdsourcing—treated history as a communal effort and addressed newspaper readers as integral participants in the creation of African-American history.
While Woodson and the ASNLH initiated Negro History Week, published free pamphlets with information on black history, and sold “Negro History Week Kits,” the success of the endeavor required local teachers and citizens to bring the celebration to life in their communities. “The people throughout the country have been called upon to do certain definite things,” Woodson noted in in the Norfolk Journal and Guide in 1927. “They are asked to organize their community through committees for the celebration, to appeal to their board of education for the adoption of Negro history textbooks, to interest their library and school in securing a shelf of scientific works on the Negro and pictures of distinguished men of the race, to urge everyone to write the Association all he knows about Negro family history and to send in any important documents bearing on the record of the Negro.”31 The following year, Woodson praised the “school authorities, ministers, teachers, professional people, and business men [who] are all cooperating in making the second week of February hum with the achievements of the Negro,” while the Norfolk Journal and Guide expressed hope that “every city, town and hamlet where there is a race conscious individual of ordinary intelligence will…make some effort toward celebrating Negro History Week.”32
In 1926, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American reported on how two dozen local schools celebrated the first Negro History Week. “A daily assembly celebration of the Negro in history composed the celebration at School No. 111,” the article noted. “One Monday the Negro in war was discussed by the principal [Mary E. Rodman] and Negro spirituals sung. Miss Daisy E. Coleman and M.E. Brownley talked on Negro music and literature Tuesday. The Wednesday program included the Negro in art, business and education by Estella W. Lee and Irma C. Stokes and S.B. Owens.” The program at schools number 109 and 110 “included short biographies, specimens of literary works, display of pictures and art selections, folk songs, Victrola selections and assemblies,” and these schools “carried the program into the churches on Sunday.”33 Four decades later, the Los Angeles Sentinel also highlighted the important work of local people. “Our indebtedness for the excellent achievements of Negro History Week is owed to many,” the editors wrote. “Most of all, we owe a lasting tribute to Historian Carter G. Woodson who conceived the idea some 41 years ago. In no small measure, however, we also are indebted to such enterprising and perceptive individuals as Mrs. Vassie D. Wright, president and founder of the local study club which has worked to make Negro History Week a success in Los Angeles since 1949.”34 In large and small communities across the country, people like Vassie Wright used the ASNLH’s pamphlets and “Negro History Week Kits” as the foundation for local celebrations of African-American history. As historian Jarvis Givens writes, “while Woodson founded the program, it was the grassroots efforts of African American teachers that institutionalized Negro History Week across the nation, making it a central part of the cultural and intellectual milieu of Black Schools.”35
At both national and local levels, black newspapers buttressed the ASNLH’s efforts to collect and communicate African-American history. As Burnis Morris demonstrates in Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations (2017), the large circulation of black newspapers helped spread information about Negro History Week across the country. In 1943, for example, 144 black newspapers in the U.S. had a circulation of over 1.6 million. By comparison, the ASNLH’s publications, Journal of Negro History and Negro History Bulletin had a combined circulation of 4,500 in 1950.36 In addition to their wide circulation, black newspapers encouraged readers to see themselves as amateur historians capable of finding and sharing important materials from the past, while also praising the local people who made Negro History Week celebrations work in their communities. In these ways, black newspapers treated the collection and communication of African-American history as a communal project that required popular participation. The next section examines how newspapers regularly discussed the history of Negro History Week and, in the process, communicated the importance of historical thinking.