The Founder of Black History Month

Contributed by Evelyn Edson, president, Scottsville Museum

In  1926, our neighbor from New Canton in Buckingham County, Carter G. Woodson, proposed the celebration of Negro History Week in February.  Over time this recognition has been expanded to a full month and is now called Black History Month.  I hope you were able to attend some of the interesting events in our area.

Woodson, born in 1875, the son of two former slaves, managed to get an education, encouraged and supported by his parents.  In 1916, he was the second Black person (after W.E.B. Du Bois) to earn a PhD in history from Harvard University.  He was appalled by the sort of education offered to Black students and wrote a book, The Negro in Our History, published in 1922, for use in schools.  You can read this book online.  It begins with the geography and history of the great African empires and their cultural and technical development.  After discussing the history of the slave trade, he describes the conditions of life in America and throughout offers brief accounts of some of the amazing achievements of Black people.  Examining advertisements of slaves for sale, he noted that “it was a common thing to refer to a slave as being smart and exhibiting evidences of having experienced most of that mental development which usually results from what we now call a common school education.”  Some slaves were also described as able to speak several languages, having a knowledge of math and science, as well as being skilled in the trades.

He covers the many slave uprisings, beginning with one in New York in 1721.  After the suppression of Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, slave life was severely restricted: schools for Black people—even teaching a Black person to read—were forbidden.  Black Christians had to attend churches with White ministers, and free Blacks, thought to be a bad influence, were expelled from many southern states.

Even after emancipation, people emerging from slavery faced daunting obstacles.  In his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Woodson wrote, “To handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”  Reading his book, I was struck by the richness of Black history and the number of outstanding individuals who became writers, teachers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and scientists. The Scottsville Museum is now organizing an exhibit on outstanding Black citizens of our area, scheduled to open on April 16.

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