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Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Association for the Study of African American Life and History


The historian Carter G. Woodson (18751950) founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in Washington, D.C., on September 9, 1915. Woodson may have been stimulated to found a new organization, albeit indirectly, by D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. To counter Griffith's racist depiction of blacks, Woodson began the organization in order to preserve and disseminate historical and sociological information on African Americans. He also became the first director of the organization, while George Cleveland Hall (18641930; personal physician to Booker T. Washington and a surgeon at Provident Hospital in Chicago) became the first president. Alexander L. Jackson, the executive secretary of the black YMCA organization in Washington, and James E. Stamps, a Yale economics graduate student who assisted Jackson, also helped to launch the association.

Prior to the establishment of the ASNLH, black historians had no professional organization that welcomed them as members. Racially exclusive, the historical profession fostered policies that promoted academic segregation, closely mirroring the racism and segregation of society as a whole. This racism was reflected in the practices of the American Historical Association, which was founded in 1884. Through the ASNLH, Woodson and the handful of black historians with whom he collaborated used their scholarship to influence white public opinion in general, and the white historical establishment in particular. With the founding of the ASNLH, Woodson not only challenged the scholarly authority of the white historical establishment, but he also provided black historians with a forum for the presentation and publication of their research.

Annual meetings of the association offered black historians an opportunity to deliver scholarly papers before their peers and encouraged further scholarly production. The association functioned as a clearinghouse and information bureau, providing research assistance in black history to scholars and to the general public. Woodson sponsored numerous research projects that involved a broad segment of the black community, and both scholars and interested amateurs participated in association research projects. To ensure the publication of the research undertaken by these scholars, Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1922. Woodson collected historical documents and edited them for publication. He also edited and published the Journal of Negro History, which began in 1916, and the Negro History Bulletin, which began in 1937 and was directed at school children. Through the auspices of the association, Woodson brought black history to a mass audience when he began the annual celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. Negro History Week was celebrated annually in February in the closest possible proximity to the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and the presumed birthday of Frederick Douglass (February 14).

After Woodson's death in 1950, the organization underwent some financial difficulties and several administrative reorganizations. The historian Charles Harris Wesley (18911987) became president in 1951 and assumed many of Woodson's former administrative roles. (Under Mary McLeod Bethune [18751955], who served as the association's first female president from 1936 to 1951, the presidency had been primarily a ceremonial position.) By 1965 the association had largely completed its reorganization, and in that year Wesley became its first executive director since Woodson. Wesley guided the ASNLH through the tumultuous civil rights era and retired in 1972. That same year, recognizing the increasing cultural and race consciousness among African Americans, the association's members voted to change its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH); this was later changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (retaining the same acronym). The headquarters of the organization remained in Washington, D.C., with offices in Woodson's original townhouse. In 1976 due in part to the efforts of executive director J. Rupert Picott, the association expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month, which is now celebrated for the entire month of February. Woodson's townhouse was declared a national historic landmark in 1976, and in February 1988 it became part of the Washington, D.C., Black History National Recreation Trail, which was also dedicated in Woodson's honor.

Woodson was succeeded as editor of the Journal of Negro History by the historian Rayford W. Logan, who served from 1950 to 1951. William Miles Brewer was editor from 1951 to 1970, and W. Augustus Low, best known for co-editing the Encyclopedia of Black America (1981) with Virgil A. Clift, was editor from 1970 to 1974. Low was succeeded by Lorraine A. Williams, who established the Carter G. Woodson Award for article contributions and worked to attract a wider spectrum of contributors to the publication. Alton Hornsby, Jr., a professor of history at Morehouse College, succeeded Williams in 1976.

In 1983 financial difficulties forced the association to briefly suspend the publication of the Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin; both publications were revived within a year. Financial difficulties also led the association to remove Dr. Samuel L. Banks from the position of national president in 1985, two years after his election to the post. Dr. Janette H. Harris became the association's second female president in 1993, and she was faced with these pressing economic conditions. Under Hornsby and Harris however, the Journal of Negro History attracted more black scholars from historically black colleges and universities. The journal also brought more women and first-time historians into its ranks of article contributors. The association continued to sponsor an annual essay contest for college students, a scholar-in-residence program, and an October convention on current historical research. In 2001 the Journal of Negro History became the Journal of African American History, and in 2003 Dr. V. P. Franklin became editor of the journal. Also in 2001, the Negro History Bulletin became the Black History Bulletin.

See also Associated Publishers; Black History Month/Negro History Week; Douglass; Frederick; Washington, Booker T.; Woodson, Carter G.

Bibliography

Goggin, Jacqueline. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick, eds. Black History and the Historical Profession. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

jacqueline goggin (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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