Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

While Woodson is the Father of Black History, he is not the ‘founder’ of Black History Month per se. That distinction belongs to The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc

Of Black historians Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to earn a PhD at Harvard University, is perhaps the most widely recognized name among this generation of young Black college and non-college goers. His book The Mis-Education of the Negro is as popular today, perhaps even more so, than it was 80 years ago when it was initially published. I submit that no text written by a Black scholar over the past one hundred years (save for Cornel West’s Race Matters) has been made more accessible to the wider Black community than this particular polemic. On occasion artists, athletes, educators and other commentators will reference it when describing modern day affairs both here and abroad. Lauryn Hill was so taken with the work that a modified version of its title is emblazoned across her 1998 debut solo album.

The prose in which The Mis-Education of the Negro is written, to say nothing of the message contained therein, is devoid of the jargon commonly associated with academic authors. From 1915 to 1942 Woodson published 22 books, nearly all of which were more intellectually rigorous than The Mis-Education of the Negro, but none more incisive and poignant. Having said that, his 1916 journal article The Beginnings of the Miscegenation of the Whites and Blacks is also a must read.

As celebrated as Woodson has become over the years, his standing as an institution builder and human rights activist sometimes goes under-acknowledged. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History), which included an annual academic convention as well as the Journal of Negro History. These creations afforded Black scholars, academics and activists a venue in which to present their papers and publish their scholarly articles that may have otherwise lay in obscurity. Few of the White academic associations such as the American Historical Association or the American Political Science Association were likely to extend an invitation to Black scholars whose work documented the accomplishments of Black people throughout the world.

No African American is more responsible for the promotion of Black history, then or now, than Woodson. His no-nonsense demeanor, willingness to mentor, relentless work ethic and high expectations are well-documented. In 1984, in honour of the scholar-activist, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Woodson stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series. In 2001, the Carter G. Woodson House was placed on the National Trust for Historical Preservation list of Most Endangered Places in the U.S.

Woodson is considered the Father of Black History and is credited with being the founder of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. In Dusk of Dawn, published in 1940, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed Negro History Week as the greatest single accomplishment to emerge from the Black artistic movement of the 1920s. Historian Rayford Logan commented that Negro History Week helped Blacks overcome their inferiority complex and instilled in them tremendous racial pride.

The accolades that Woodson received from his contemporaries over the years have to some extent overshadowed the true history of Negro History Week and may have inadvertently resulted in a bit of revisionist history. Woodson is the Father of Black History, but he is not the ‘founder’ of Negro History Week per se. That distinction, technically, belongs to The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc (see Herman Dreer, The History of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, 1911 to 1939. Washington, DC, 1940).

Early in the fraternity’s history a meeting was convened to discuss the Fraternity’s ‘field of emphasis’ as it were. At this meeting sat several Omega luminaries including the revered Colonel Charles Young, a West Point graduate, Garnet C. Wilkinson , Woodson and John H. Burnell who actually suggested a program that stressed Negro history. Burnell admitted that the idea came to him upon hearing a stirring address delivered by Woodson, at the Fraternity’s Ninth Annual Conclave held in 1920 in an auditorium at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Woodson was at the time, Dean of West Virginia Institute. In his remarks Woodson ‘urged the college man to give less attention to social affairs and devote more time to the study of Negro life . . . such knowledge he maintained, would produce an increase in the number of competent Negro leaders and would inspire race pride in the masses as a whole.’

Suffice to say Burnell’s recommendation was ‘instantly approved’; hence in 1921 The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. initiated a program called Negro History and Literature Week to be held in April of every year. The program was hugely popular on Black college campuses across America.

When Woodson completed his deanship at West Virginia Institute the Fraternity placed the program under his guidance. As its director, Woodson believed he could capitalize on the intellectual and artistic furor that surrounded the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, with the fraternity’s blessing, Woodson modified the name from Negro History and Literature Week to Negro History Week. He then switched the celebratory month from April to February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Today, Black History Month (as it has grown into since the late 1970s) is celebrated by millions of people around the world. To be sure, Woodson deserves credit for taking what began as Negro History and Literature Week; and under the purview of The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc transformed it into an internationally recognized phenomenon. This is a history--that while may not be widely known-- is nevertheless well chronicled in the annals of Omega.