Where Black History Began

Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site reflects the history of a man who expanded the meaning of the word.

By Ethan Gilsdorf

The house at 1538 9th Street lies vacant, as it has for some 30 years, secured against vandals, and abutting nondescript homes and a pizzeria. Visitors aren’t yet welcome. The address is a dream behind plywood.

When the Park Service unveils the Carter G. Woodson Home as a National Historic Site in Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood (with luck, sometime before 2015), the residence of one of American history’s unsung heroes, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, will finally be made public. And with that, there is hope that Woodson’s lifework will at last be given the recognition it deserves.

“There is no African-American history without the pioneering work of Woodson,” said Robert Parker, a historian and park ranger who is managing the site.

Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950) never became a household name like many other black leaders. Yet the historian, author, editor, and journalist devoted his own life to documenting the lives of other African Americans.

Those who make the history get the accolades, but people don’t know as much about the ones who recorded that history: the curators, collectors, researchers, and writers, says Parker. “You hear about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks... but you don’t hear about the ones who are authoring their stories.”

Woodson published the Negro History Bulletin, developed for elementary and high school teachers, and the more scholarly Journal of Negro History. But he’s best known for founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH) which, in 1926, established Negro History Week.

“From the very first year, it caught on rapidly within the African-American community, nationwide,” says Daryl Scott, PhD, chairman of department of history at nearby Howard University. “By the 1930, governors and mayors all across the nation were issuing proclamations.” Negro History Week even had a following among white teachers who had no black students, and eventually blossomed into Black History Month.

As a young student himself, Woodson had to overcome an onerous upbringing. Born to former slaves in Virginia, he and his brother worked on the family farm as children; later the young Woodson was a coal miner. Although he was unable to attend school regularly until adulthood, as a 20-year-old, Woodson completed high school in two years, then earned a bachelors from Berea College in Kentucky and a masters from the University of Chicago. When he received his PhD from Harvard in 1913, he was the second African American to do so, following only W.E.B Dubois. Woodson taught in the Philippines for several years, then moved to Washington, D.C., to conduct research at the Library of Congress.

“It is true that many Negroes do not desire to hear anything about their race, and few whites of today will listen to the story of woe,” Woodson wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro. “With most of them the race question has been settled. The Negro has been assigned to the lowest drudgery as the sphere in which the masses must toil to make a living; and socially and politically the race has been generally proscribed. Inasmuch as the traducers of the race have ‘settled’ the matter in this fashion, they naturally oppose any effort to change this status.”

By documenting history, Woodson believed he could initiate change. “He did not use his Ivy League education to simply return to the Ivy League,” says Parker. “He wanted to make sure that African-American people connected to their history.”

Woodson’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood was known as the “Black Broadway” in its day, home to Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and Mary McLeod Bethune (whose home is a National Historic Site five blocks from the Woodson home). But Woodson’s documentary efforts were largely “a one-person operation,” says Scott. “He lived in the house, he ran the Association from the house, he ran the publishing from the same place. And he lived on he third floor in modest quarters.” A solitary man of few needs, he ate most of his meals at the nearby YMCA, which is still open today.

Woodson never married or had children, too consumed in his work to tend to a marriage and family. Woodson did it all from 1538 9th Street, his home from 1915 until his death; the building continued to serve as ASALH’s offices until the 1970s.

In 2005, the Park Service acquired the property and began to partner with ASALH to renovate the home. And there’s plenty of work to be done: structural analyses, the purchase of an adjacent building, and an investigation of what Woodson’s office and living quarters might have been like so many years ago. “From an interpretive standpoint, the Park Service needs to decide the most significant story or stories to tell,” says Greg Marshall, Superintendent of the Edison Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. “Then use the house, the furniture, the shaving kits, and the shoes to tell that story. The goal is to create an emotional connection between these things and the visitors.”

Those efforts are all in the service of bringing Woodson the man to life again. “This was his office. This was his library, his personal residence,” says Parker. “This is where black history began.”

Ethan Gilsdorf is a freelance journalist, poet, and teacher living in Somerville, Massachusetts.

This article appears in the Summer 2008 issue.

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