This year marks the 95th anniversary of the first nationally recognized celebration of African American history and culture in the United States. Carter Woodson, born in 1875, the son of slaves and a former sharecropper himself, enrolled at the University of Chicago where he received a master’s degree and went on to become the second person of color to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.
After having difficulty finding documentation on the heritage and progress of his race while studying at these schools, three years after gaining his doctorate, in 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, based at his home in Washington, D.C.
He began collecting histories and highlighting the achievements of Black Americans and made the archives available to the public. Additionally, he sought to conduct events that would focus on preserving traditions and customs of the past as well as encouraging academics of the future.
To do this, Woodson began researching appropriate dates to declare as a week when the country could specifically commemorate and embrace this heritage. He selected the second week of February because it marked the birth dates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the slave who bought his freedom and became the leading African American figure in the movement to abolish slavery.
In 1926, from his home, Woodson announced the creation of Black History Week. The concept was well received in large cities with minority populations and chapters of the ASNLH were chartered in many cities across the nation. Each of these opened community centers or archives of their own and, since Black history was not commonly taught in public schools, frequently was the only place to learn of African American achievement within these neighborhoods.
To further the movement, Woodson, in the 1920s, established the Associated Publishers Press, to print and disseminate this history for people of all walks of life and all sizes of communities throughout the country.
The celebrations of minority culture continued every February, mostly in metropolitan areas, until the rise of the civil rights marches in the 1960s. With the increase in awareness of the heritage, and strides of the African American populace, a campaign was begun to expand Woodson’s Black History Week to an officially recognized monthlong observance.
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It was not until 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial, though, that President Gerald Ford signed the first proclamation declaring February as Black History Month. It was formally adopted in that year to “honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every endeavor throughout our history.”
Later changed to African American History Month, every president of the country has signed such a proclamation for the month of February, just as Woodson had foreseen almost a century ago.
Woodson died in 1950, before he could see his dream become a reality, but the legacy lives on. The author of this column, as a historian in Chicago, spent much time at the Carter Woodson Library on the city’s south side, researching newspapers and biographies available nowhere else. I would later, as a resident of Washington, D.C., pass by every day, the home of Black History Week’s founder, which now is a museum and archive operated by the National Park Service, and stop by occasionally on weekends when it was open for the public.
Today, Cedar Rapids has its own equivalent in the form of the African American Museum of Iowa, located on 12th Avenue, near the river. It was co-founded by Thomas Moore, another believer, much like Woodson, in the diffusion of knowledge recognizing Black history, not only nationally, but within the state of Iowa as well.
Begun in 1993 as a community center at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, it grew to have its own home at Westdale Mall, and 10 years later, moved into its current building of nearly 20,000 square feet, as a premier cultural landmark in the state.
There, visitors can learn about the legacy of the Black experience in America from the days of slavery to the liberation from Jim Crow in the era of Martin Luther King Jr. and even, in more recent times, the Black Lives Matter movement. And yes, if you dig deep into the archives, you can even find an image of Carter Woodson on the postage stamp which honored him in 1984.
In this year of the 95th anniversary of Black History Week and the 45th Anniversary of Black History Month, let us remember the founders of this occasion and the institutions which today keep its dream alive.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.