Carter G. Woodson The Father of Black History and Black History Month

Today’s post was written by M. Marie Maxwell, archivist in the Special Access and FOIA Program at the National Archives in College Park.

It’s February, which means it is Black History Month. Do you know why we have a Black History Month? Because it started out as Negro History Week. And who started that? Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Here, you can see his memorial, which is across the street from the Phyllis Wheatley YMCA in Washington, DC and a block from his historic home that is run by the National Park Service.

As an amateur DC neighborhood historian, I’ve encountered Dr. Woodson many times in my study. He was one of the Shaw neighborhood’s notable residents. His home at 1538 9th Street NW, Washington, DC served as his office and the headquarters of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), currently known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an association where he was the primary founder.

Woodson was an early 20th Century educator and advocate for the study of Black history, which is rich and wide and varied. So, this month I’d like to relate this great historian to our holdings.

When it comes to Carter G. Woodson and the National Archives (NARA), I will look at three themes: random happenstance, the National Park Services’ acquisition and establishment of the Carter G. Woodson Home as a National Historic site, and the recognition of Black History Month by presidential administrations.

Happenstance- Random Stuff

Carter G. Woodson – Teacher, Historian, Publisher (NAID 535622)

Using the NARA Catalog to look for Carter G. Woodson, a variety of documents, images and recordings can be discovered. The NARA Catalog has records at the series, file and item level. The above image is an item (NAID 535622) from the Record Group (RG) 208: Records of the Office of War Information series Artworks and Mockups for Cartoons Promoting the War Effort and Original Sketches by Charles Alston, ca. 1942–ca. 1945 (NAID 535594). Another item, this from the Harmon Foundation Collection, can be found in NARA’s Motion Pictures at College Park, NEGRO NOTABLES; NEGRO EDUCATION AND ART IN THE U.S (NAID 95042) where he is one of many people mentioned. His name shows up in the series description for RG 302, Records Regarding Alleys Considered and Not Considered for Reclamation, 1934–1957 (NAID 2794752). The description mentions there are letters from Nannie Helen Burroughs and Carter G. Woodson responding to an inquiry from the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA) about naming a housing project after Dr. Edward Davis Williston. This is an example where agencies like the ADA sought his advice and cited his works regarding Black history subjects. In the General Notes for this archival description, the description was revised as part of NARA’s reparative description initiative.

When searching “Woodson, Carter” or “Carter Woodson”, without the “G”, his name shows up in random spots. He has a State Department (RG 59) file Woodson, Carter (NAID 748944) from the series Applications and Recommendations for Appointment to the Consular and Diplomatic Services (NAID 657835), when he applied for a position with the State Department in 1908.  There’s a school named for him, so searching for “Carter G. Woodson” will bring up a 2000 era lawsuit from a teacher who worked at the Carter G. Woodson Elementary School (NAID 102705309). A search of his name will bring up applications for historic places because they cite him as a source. Remember, he’s the father of Black History, which means he wrote a lot, about Black History.

Considering he was a teacher in District of Columbia schools at a point in his career, his name might also randomly appear in RG 351 or other documents related to DC schools. Prior to Home Rule, the Government of the District of Columbia was a part of the Federal Government, which is why NARA has these records in Record Group 351. In 1909 Woodson accepted a position as a teacher at the segregated Armstrong Manual Technical School in DC. He left to pursue a PhD from Harvard (1912), the second African American to do so, and returned to DC to become Armstrong’s principal. The records of the District of Columbia Schools’ history are not with us, they are at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

General Land Assessment Files, 1902-1938 (detail) NAID 4748936

As mentioned earlier, Woodson owned the large townhome where he operated his historical association at 1538 9th St NW in Washington, DC. It appears his name is picked up by the Catalog’s OCR, so Carter G. Woodson, the home owner, may appear in the file unit Streets and Addresses: Massachusetts Ave – Newcomb (NAID 117215527) taken from a microfilm publication M1116 related to RG 351’s series Card Indexes to Building Permits, 1877-1958. He’s one of thousands of property owners in the RG 351 series for property assessments, General Land Assessment Files, 1902–1938 (NAID 4748936).

National Park Service and the Carter G. Woodson Home

Since mentioning his home ownership, let’s move on to his historic home in Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

It all starts with a study, in this case, the 106th Congress, Carter G. Woodson Home as National Historic Site Feasibility Study, DC – House Resolution 3201 (NAID 280998748). This authorized the National Park Service (NPS) in October of 2000 to investigate making his home on 9th St NW in Washington, DC a historic site.

The 108th Congress followed up with a bill to establish it. 108th Congress, Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site (Establish), DC – House Resolution 1012 (NAID 281000600). There was related testimony, see item 108th Congress, Testimony 1st Session Part I (NAID 281000472). Part 2 might be somewhere in the file unit (NAID 245042561) or series Legislative Files, ca. 2010–January 3, 2016 (NAID 79420000).

The next item is Washington, DC NHL Woodson, Carter G., House (NAID 117691915) which appears to be the nomination form for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. As expected, there is a lot of documentation to justify its acceptance and background on who Carter G. Woodson was and his importance.

Front view of Carter G. Woodson home. Page 8 of NAID 117691915

Black History Month

According to the ASALH site, 98 years ago, Woodson “sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week in February, 1926.” The annual celebration of Black history became very popular and grew. In the 1960s, well after Woodson’s death in 1950, Negro History Week morphed into Black History Month. Fifty years after its start, Black History Month was nationally recognized in 1976.

National Black History Month Message from Gerald Ford, 1976

The above letter is National Black History Month Message, 1976 (NAID 16637977), see also (NAID 7342484) from President Gerald Ford. President Jimmy Carter (NAID 843145), President Ronald Reagan (see Black History Event NAID 66328613), and every president since have observed February as Black History Month. And the rest is history.

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