The Genesis of Dr. Carter Woodson's Negro History Week

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

When there were no academic journals to counter racist scholarship, Dr. Carter G. Woodson created one. When no professional presses would accept materials about African Americans, he founded one. Former Smithsonian Fellow Kimberly D. Brown explores Woodson and the origins of Black History Month. Adapted from the National Museum of American History Blog.

Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson legitimized and popularized the history of African American people through his establishment of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH, referred to today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915 and the organization's subsequent launch of Negro History Week in February 1926. When mainstream history either largely ignored or debased the Black presence in the American narrative, Dr. Woodson labored to inject a fair portrayal of African Americans into the national record.

Carter Woodson Portrait
Scurlock Studios, 1915
cellulose acetate photonegative

A Harvard graduate, Dr. Woodson produced his dissertation with university professors Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart, as committee member and dissertation advisor respectively. The two plainly expressed their convictions about African Americans as inferior. Hart paternalistically encouraged education as a mechanism for improving what he believed was an innate intellectual inadequacy within African Americans.

Channing bluntly argued that the Negro had no history and, according to Woodson, found laughable the idea of Crispus Attucks and his role in the Boston Massacre as an important contribution to the independence of the country. Channing challenged Woodson to undertake research that the Negro had a history.


10¢ Salem Poor Stamp Art
by Neil Boyle, c. 1975

The U.S. bicentennial was the occasion for this stamp, part of a series that honored little-known figures of the American Revolution. Salem Poor was a slave who purchased his freedom and later participated in the battles at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and White Plains.

Woodson, however, had taken up that challenge long before arriving at Harvard and continued to do so for the rest of his life as an educator and prolific scholar.


Dr. Carter G. Woodson
"Informal Poses" #61, February 1948
by Robert S. Scurlock (1917-1994)
acetate film photonegative

Woodson is shown half-length in his library, standing behind a desk on which there is a Burroughs adding machine.

He meticulously researched, wrote, and published innumerable works on almost every aspect of Black life.


Promotional Leaflet and Order Form
An Old Story Made New - Negro Makers of History
by Carter Godwin Woodson

Despite his earliest efforts taking place during what many scholars refer to as the "nadir," or lowest point, in American race relations, his work sparked a mass movement to recognize and celebrate Black resilience in and contributions to the United States.

When there were no academic journals to counter racist scholarship, he created one. When there were no professional presses that would accept materials about African Americans, he created one. The Journal of Negro History, Associated Publishers, and what became known as "Black History Month" are among the crown jewels of his legacy.

Still, Woodson viewed a yearly emphasis during one week (or now, during one month) as entirely missing the charge, which was to use the week as an overview of what should have been taught throughout the year, not to compensate for what was not. His mission was to, "emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history."


Dr. Carter G. Woodson
"Informal Poses" #60, February 1948
by Robert S. Scurlock (1917-1994)
acetate film photonegative

Reproduced in Richard Mertens, "The coal miner who became the father of black history," University of Chicago Magazine, May-June 2008 (Vol. 100, No. 5), pp. 46-47

In other words, one cannot understand the foundation of American government, tax structure, or changing legislative developments without understanding slavery, its economic implications, and heavy influence on political party identity.


5¢ Emancipation Proclamation Stamp Art
by Georg Olden, c. 1963

This bold, allegorical commemorative for the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was the first U.S. postage stamp designed by an African American. On the concept art, a marginal notation indicates that the design was approved by President Kennedy.

Civil War figures, such as Stephen A. Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln, go misunderstood without proper evaluation of their relationships with Black people. Science and technology, business and capitalism, Hollywood and popular media, urbanization, and foreign policies will never be fully comprehended without consideration to the Black presence in America.


To Form a More Perfect Union Pane of 10

The Postal Service issued a souvenir sheet of 37-cent To Form a More Perfect Union stamps in ten designs, on August 30, 2005, in the following locations: Greensboro, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennesse; Montgomery, Alabama; Selma, Alabama; Topeka, Kansas; Washington, DC. Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland designed the stamps.

This issue recognizes the courage and achievements of the men and women who fought for equal rights during the years of the Civil Rights movement. The issue presents an artistic representation of several pivotal events from the 1948 Executive Order ending segregation in the military to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Stamp designer Ethel Kessler used details from contemporary artworks to comment on all of the ten historical events commemorated on this souvenir sheet.

50 million stamps were printed by Ashton Potter (USA) Ltd. in the offset process.

Eminent scholar and social activist W.E.B. DuBois lauded Negro History Week as the greatest achievement to arise from the Black Renaissance of the 1920s in his 1940 book Dusk of Dawn. Known as Black History Month today, it carries the incandescent legacy of its creator, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

29¢ W. E. B. Du Bois stamp art
by Higgins Bond, c. 1992

Critic, editor, scholar, author, civil rights leader, and one of the most influential African Americans of the 20th century, William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) took his academic pursuit in sociology and enacted real life change in society. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Through the NAACP's The Crisis, DuBois drew the critical eye of the nation and congress to the horrors of lynching and the mistreatment of returning black soldiers from World War I. In later years, DuBois turned his attention to the global issues of race and the Pan-African Movement.

In 2015, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History opened on the foundation of public access to Black history that Dr. Woodson built. May we all be moved to keep building the house of preservation and acknowledgement, even if it's just by just sharing the history of Black History Month.

- National Museum of American History Fellow Kimberly D. Brown


A view of the Civil Rights exhibit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Seen here in a state of disrepair, likely in 1958, the site of Woodson's former home and offices in Washington, DC was renovated by the National Park Service and reopened in 2016 as a National Historic Site.

The Carter G. Woodson National Historic Site preserves the residence where Woodson spent the last 28 years of his life, as well as the original headquarters for the organization he founded, which continues today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

In the midst of the renovation of his home and offices, the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Park was commemorated in 2015... a place or recognition and contemplation, in a triangle one-half block north of the Woodson Historic Site.

Credits: Story

A Collaboration between the Smithsonian's
National Museum of American History
National Postal Museum

Text by
National Museum of American History
Fellow Kimberly D. Brown

Exhibit Designed by
Marc Bretzfelder, Smithsonian Office
of the Chief Information Officer

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