Association for the Study of Negro Life and History
Association for the Study of Negro Life and History
In 1940 Carter G. Woodson wrote to his fellow Americans: “Do not let the role which you have played be obscured while others write themselves into the foreground of your story” (Negro History Bulletin, February 1940). Woodson and the members of the organization that he founded played a very important role in fighting the negative stereotypes of African Americans that were created during slavery. In the fight against racism in America, history itself has always been an important battleground. Woodson and his colleagues tackled this huge task by researching, writing, and promoting a truthful history of African Americans. They made it their mission to spread the word of the many positive contributions that blacks made to the building of America and the world.
The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was organized in Chicago, Illinois, on September 15, 1915. The next month, on October 9, the association was incorporated in Washington, D.C., and it has operated there ever since. In 1972 the name was changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH. In 2007, the association had thousands of members and operated fifty-three branches in twenty-one states, as well as an additional branch in Nigeria, West Africa.
The ASALH collects historical and sociological materials and data about African Americans, as well as about black people throughout the world. This research material is used to publish pamphlets, monographs, and books on the African diaspora throughout history. The association has sought to “promote the study of Negroes through churches, clubs, schools, colleges, and fraternal organizations, and to bring about harmony between the races by interpreting the one to the other” (ASALH).
In January 1916 the organization published the first issue of its quarterly, The Journal of Negro History. The Journal has long been considered one of the best historical publications in the world. It is an influential outlet for pioneering works of African-American history and a major proponent for the development of the field of African-American studies.
The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the Journal of Negro History were the brain-children of Carter Godwin Woodson, who was born on December 19, 1875 and died on April 3, 1950. During his lifetime he became known as the “father of the black history movement,” and he was the founder of Negro History Week (later expanded to Black History Month). Woodson devoted his life to documenting the accomplishments of Africans and African-Americans and getting black history accepted as a serious field of scholarship. In addition to being a prolific writer, he was a tireless researcher, an obsessive collector, a gifted orator, and a very accomplished educator.
For more than thirty-five years, Woodson waged an unrelenting, multifront war against intellectual racism in America. He battled antiblack American social thought and misguided educational polices and programs in many segregated black schools and colleges. Through his establishment of the ASNLH, Woodson popularized black history among the black masses. He almost single-handedly opened the long suppressed and neglected field of black history to students, writers, scholars, and researchers seeking the truth about the black presence in the world.
The son of James Henry Woodson and Anne Eliza (Riddle), both former slaves, Carter Woodson was born in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia. He was the oldest of nine children. Woodson and his family experienced extreme poverty compounded by the trauma of widespread racism in one of the poorest counties in Virginia. However, Woodson belonged to a close-knit family in which the chores of farming were shared, and his parents related many stories about slavery.
The late 1800s were a very difficult period for African Americans. It was the end of the Reconstruction period, and federal troops had been withdrawn from the South, leaving the recently freed slaves to survive on their own, unprotected from the wrath of their former masters. Many white Southerners blamed blacks for the Civil War, and many sought them out for revenge. Black public officials were frequently murdered, run out of town, or removed from their positions through violent means, and Jim Crow laws were being instituted throughout the South. The white-hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as similar vigilante groups, were riding in the night spreading terror and committing countless murders. Lynchings were a part of everyday life in the South. In some towns, lynching “holidays” were held so that whites could picnic and watch a black person being beaten, hanged, mutilated or burned, and finally killed.
Many African Americans began to leave the South during this period. As news of these horrific events reached Woodson’s family, they were deeply saddened and more than a little nervous about their well-being. Woodson’s father had escaped from slavery and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. He settled in Buckingham County in 1872, and Carter Godwin Woodson was born three years later.
At an early age, Woodson developed a deep hunger for learning. Jacqueline Goggins, a Woodson biographer, wrote of him, “Even as a small boy, Carter G. Woodson was passionate about history. When he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, it seemed as if he was destined to do so and it became his life work” (Papers of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1915–1950, University Publications of America, Introduction by Goggin, 1999).
As the world would learn, Woodson possessed a rare combination of genius and intellect coupled with unstoppable determination and almost boundless energy.
The young Woodson was not able to attend the local district school during the customary five-month period because he was needed to work on the small farm of his parents. Woodson’s father was a carpenter and a farmer who was unable to read or write. His mother and an uncle had somehow learned to read and write however, and taught him the rudiments of reading. He attended a one-room grammar school that was open only four months per year, but he was largely self-taught until he entered high school at the age of twenty. Like other literate blacks of the era, Woodson was often paid to read to groups of illiterate men and women in his spare time, a situation that enlightened both him and his listeners.
In 1892, Woodson left Buckingham County and joined his brother Robert Henry in Huntington, West Virginia. At first he worked on the railroad laying railroad ties, and later he worked in the dangerous mines of the Fayette County coalfields. Woodson became the black community “reader” for many illiterate coal miners, including one Oliver Jones, who despite his inability to read had built up a surprisingly good collection of black historical works. Using Jones’s books, Woodson became the literate attraction of the area.
In 1895 Carter G. Woodson entered Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia. He earned his diploma in less than two years. In the fall of 1897 and the winter of 1898, Woodson attended Berea College in Kentucky, one of the few white schools of that day that had a liberal policy of opening its doors to black students.
Woodson taught in Winona in Fayette County, West Virginia, from 1898 to 1900. Just four years after his graduation from Douglass High School, young Woodson returned to the school first as a teacher then as its principal and remained there from 1900-1903. After several interruptions he received his degree of Bachelor of Literature from Berea College in 1903.
Woodson took a position as supervisor of schools in the Philippines until 1907. He completed correspondence courses in Spanish and French at the University of Chicago while overseas, and in 1907 he traveled to Europe and Asia and took classes at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he learned to speak French. In 1908 he went to the University of Chicago, where he simultaneously took undergraduate and graduate classes. In March 1908 he received his second bachelor of arts degree and in August received his master’s degree. Late in 1908, he began work on his doctorate in history from Harvard University.
In 1909 Woodson returned to Washington D.C. to make full use of the Library of Congress. He continued work on his doctoral thesis while teaching French, English, and History at the fabled M Street (Paul Laurence Dunbar) High School. Later he became principal at the nearby Armstrong Manual Training High School, while still managing to do research on his thesis. While Wood-son worked on getting his degree, Edward Channing, one of his Harvard professors, argued that Negroes had no history. Channing later challenged Woodson to undertake research to prove that Negroes had a history. He discovered that Albert Bushnell Hart, another of his professors, believed blacks to be an inferior race.
Woodson satisfied his dissertation committee in 1912 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was the second African American to receive this degree from Harvard; William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) DuBois, the only son of freeborn parents, had been awarded the same degree from the same department in 1895.
Sometime in 1913 or 1914, Woodson became a member of the American Negro Academy, a scholarly organization founded in 1897 by Alexander Crummell, an erudite black Episcopalian minister. Modeled on the Académe Français and limited to forty members, the academy had the following objectives: to defend African Americans against vicious racist attacks, to publish scholarly works on racial issues, and to encourage higher education and an appreciation for literature, science, and art within the black community. It was the first organization to bring together black scholars and artists from all over the world, and it had a strong influence on Woodson.
In the summer of 1915 Woodson journeyed to Chicago to attend the Exposition of Negro Progress, which was being held to mark fifty years of black freedom. While living at Chicago’s downtown YMCA during the exposition, Woodson met a number of other black history enthusiasts and became convinced that the time was ripe to organize them. Thus on September 9, before returning to Washington, Dr. Woodson organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). According to Dr. Charles Wesley, one of Woodson’s biographers, “he was convinced by this date that the Negro would become a negligible factor in the thought of the world and would stand in danger of being exterminated unless something was done to rescue him from history’s neglect at that time” (Wesley 1965, p. 173).
Four people helped Woodson form the ASNLH: George Cleveland Hall, Booker T. Washington’s personal physician; W. B. Hartgrove, a teacher in the Washington D.C. public schools; Alexander L. Jackson, the executive secretary of the Wabash YMCA in Chicago; and James Stamps, a Yale University graduate student in economics. In October Woodson returned to Washington and incorporated the ASNLH as a not-for-profit historical and educational organization. The board of directors included its founding members. He bought a house at 1538 Ninth Street, Northwest. In addition to living here, the house served as the association’s national headquarters for the remainder of his life. Also in 1915, Woodson published his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, which is often referred to as his most scholarly book.
On January 1, 1916, Woodson published the first issue of his quarterly Journal of Negro Life and History. To finance the printing of the first issue, Woodson borrowed four hundred dollars against his $2,000 life insurance policy. He mailed copies of the first Journal to the ASNLH membership and to white foundations, and each copy was accompanied by a request for donations and subscription orders. He raised enough money in this way to pay for the printing of the second issue.
While Woodson served as executive director of the association, George Cleveland Hall became its first president in 1916. A renowned surgeon, social activist, and community leader, Hall was a vice president of the Urban League, an early member of the NAACP, and a tireless leader for black rights. He was also instrumental in the operation of Chicago’s now extant Provident Hospital. (For many years Provident was the only private hospital in Chicago that would treat blacks.) The Dr. Cleveland Hall Library, located on the south side of Chicago, is a monument to his memory.
Robert E Park, a white sociologist with nine years experience as public relations director for Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, became the only white president of the association in 1917. He served in this position until 1921. Park had been a professor at the University of Chicago, and he was to become a teacher and mentor of the pioneering black sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier.
In 1917 the first national meeting of the ASNLH was held in Washington, D.C. Since then the annual meeting of the association has attracted members and observers from all over the country. Held in different cities each year, the event attracts upward of a thousand participants who attend educational and historical workshops, meetings, and a variety of other events. Current leaders in the fields of history, education, sociology, and other relevant professions are invited to speak and make presentations. Representatives of other scholarly associations and book publishers usually are present.
Whereas the association is now housed at Howard University and has a small staff, during its early years it barely survived. The publicity engendered by his Harvard degree helped Woodson create an Executive Council, which once included luminaries such as Julius Rosen-wald, the millionaire retailer; George Foster Peabody; J.G. Phelps Stokes, of the Phelps Stokes Fund; and Jesse Moorland, the national secretary of the YMCA.
Woodson worked like a one-man band, lecturing, teaching, researching, writing, and publishing. He used part of his salary from his regular teaching jobs to help keep the ASNLH afloat. To save money he often cleaned the association’s office himself. In 1918 he was appointed principal of the Armstrong School in Washington, D.C. He also published another scholarly work, A Century of Negro Migration, in which he documented some of the most pressing issues facing African Americans.
Howard University appointed Woodson to the position of Dean of the School of Liberal Arts in 1919. However, a conflict with Howard’s white president, J. Stanley Durkee, over the issue of academic freedom led to his being fired just one year after he joined the staff. His friend John Davis, who had just become president of West Virginia State College (then known as West Virginia Collegiate Institute), offered Woodson a position at his school. After two years at this institution, Woodson found that academic administration was not to his liking, and he left the college.
In 1921, while he was still living in Virginia, he published The History of the Negro Church, a pioneering work on the subject. In 1922 he published The Negro in Our History, one of his best-selling works. By 1972 twelve editions of the book had been printed. In 1922 he also established Associated Publishers, an independent book publishing organization that he created after having trouble with biased white publishers.
In 1926 Woodson and the association began the celebration of Negro History Week, which was to be used to shed light on and celebrate the contributions blacks had made to America. Woodson stated “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, hate and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it shown how he has influenced the development of civilization” (Woodson 1940). The month of February was selected for Negro History Week in honor of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In explaining the need for Negro History Week, Woodson said:
The fact is that so-called history teaching in our schools and colleges is downright propaganda, an effort to praise one race and to decry the other to justify social repression and exploitation. The world is still in darkness as to the actual progress of mankind. Each corner of the universe has tended to concern itself merely with the exploits of its own particular heroes. Students and teachers of our time, therefore, are the victims of this selfish propaganda. (Woodson 1940)
In the 1920s and 1930s Woodson donated many of the materials that he had collected to the Library of Congress. In 1926 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Woodson the Springarn Medal for his contributions in promoting a more accurate view of blacks in America. From the 1920s through the late 1940s Woodson spent a great deal of time traveling throughout the country, speaking about black history at schools, churches, colleges and universities, fraternities, social and cultural groups, and wherever else there was an audience. The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson’s best-known book, was first published
in 1933 and remains in print in the early twenty-first century. In 1937 he published the first issue of the Negro History Bulletin, a history magazine designed for school children and the general public. Woodson’s great ambition, beyond isolated books and articles, was to create a massive coherent historical document, which he entitled Encyclopedia of the Negro. Other black scholars (DuBois in particular) dreamed of creating a similar work, each hopeful of receiving philanthropic financing. Some seventy-odd years were to pass before such a volume appeared under the title of Africana: the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1999), edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates.
Woodson had much greater success in popularizing the idea that black history was intrinsically and socially important. Black History Week highlighted this importance, as did the publication of the Negro History Bulletin. From his Washington office Woodson promoted the establishment of state and local chapters of the ASALH. Throughout the nation, in the various state and local chapters, thousands of African Americans read his publications and were stimulated to share their ideas with other blacks. Black History Week was a natural outgrowth of these chapters. In 1927 Woodson established a division within the association that contained units he dubbed “Lecture Bureau” and “Home Study Department.” The purpose of this division was to coordinate the work of local ASNLH chapters (Goggin, 1993, pp. 86–87).
For years, Carter G. Woodson was the only African-American historian working independently of any formal educational institution, an unusual situation that attracted the attention of the U.S. government. In 1938 the FBI, the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began monitoring Woodson’s activities, thinking it odd that a black Harvard Ph.D. recipient was devoting his professional life to promoting a different version of the nation’s past than that presented by mainstream educators. HUAC subjected Woodson to heightened surveillance after he spoke to nontraditional white organizations such as the Samuel Adams School for Social Studies in Massachusetts and the Rackham Educational Memorial School in Detroit. In addition, several of his publications critical of the state of race relations were favorably reviewed by the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker.
Woodson received an honorary doctorate degree in Laws from West Virginia State College in 1941. On April 3, 1950, he died abruptly of a heart attack at his home in Washington D.C. He was seventy-five years old. Over the course of his life, Woodson wrote a total of eighteen books, published dozens of articles, and was a regular columnist in several magazines and newspapers. Among the books Woodson wrote and edited are Negro Orators and Their Orations (1926), The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800–1860 (1926), Negro Makers of History (1928), The History of the Negro Church (1927), The Negro Wage Earner (1930, with Lorenzo Greene), The Rural Negro (1930), The Negro Professional Man and the Community (1934), The Story of the Negro Retold (1935), The African Background Outlined (1936), and The Works of Francis J. Grimké (1942, 4 volumes).
From the outset, Woodson had trouble raising substantial funds from white foundations and philanthropic organizations. In 1916 he received his first donations from white foundations; a commitment of an annual $200 donation from the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a pledge of $800 a year from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, and other small donations.
Beginning in 1916 Woodson submitted proposals to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and others. His proposals were rejected for many years, however. Finally, in 1922 the Carnegie Institute awarded Woodson his first grant in the amount of $25,000. The money from this grant was to be spread over a five-year period, and it was used to secure additional funding from the Laura Spelman Memorial Fund. With these funding commitments in place, he was able to retire from teaching and devote all of his time to the association and his research and writing. Until this time, Woodson’s main challenge was finding enough money to support himself, the association, and the Journal. He often told people that he was married to the association, and that that was the reason he never married. Beginning in 1922, the ASNLH was finally able to pay Woodson a salary of $3,000 a year.
In 1922, however, Woodson clashed with the transplanted Welshman Thomas Jesse Jones, the educational director of the Phelps-Stokes Funds, over educational policy, and the association lost most of its foundation support. Woodson supported liberal education, while Jones favored low-level vocational education, which he felt better suited the “realities” of black life. By the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Jones had succeeded in blocking almost all support for the ASNLH from other white philanthropic organizations and foundations. Despite this loss, as well as pressure to make the association a unit of an existing college, Woodson remained defiantly independent, relying on African Americans for the bulk of the group’s revenue.
In addition to Woodson’s tireless efforts on behalf of the organization, the ASALH has been led by some of the most brilliant and influential scholars that the United States has ever produced. The directors of the association have played a large role in making black history a part of the fabric of American life. Presidents of the ASNLH have come from the fields of education, sociology, black studies, and history and more. Among those who have served as president were John Hope, a Morehouse College president; Mary McLeod Bethune, founder/president of Bethune Cookman College; Andrew Brimmer, an economist and member of the Federal Reserve Board; Lorenzo Greene, professor at Lincoln University; and historians Edgar Toppin, Earl E. Thorpe, and William Harris.
After Woodson’s death, Rayford Logan, who was chairman of the History Department at Howard University, became executive director of the association for a year. While the association searched for an executive director to replace Woodson, Charles Wesley filled the positions of president and executive director. Wesley ended up working for the association until 1964, when he left to become president of Central State College in Ohio.
Wesley was a historian, minister, and educator. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he received his master’s degree in art from Yale University. He then attended Harvard University, where, in 1925, he received the third doctorate degree ever awarded to an African American. He served on the faculty of Howard University from 1913 to 1942. Wesley first joined the ASNLH in 1916, and he served as president from 1950 to 1965. In 1965 Wesley returned to Washington, D.C., and he was again elected executive director, a position he held until 1972. Later Wesley became president of Wilberforce University in Ohio, one of the oldest historically black colleges or universities in the United States. He served as the first director of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia in 1976.
For more than twenty years Wesley also served as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. For several years he served as president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity about which he wrote a book. He wrote several other books including: Collapse of the Confederacy (1937); Negro Labor in the United States, 1850–1925 (1967); and The History of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs: A Legacy of Service (1984). Charles Wesley died in 1987.
By 1970 the word Negro had become offensive to many people. In keeping with the changing times, in 1972 the association changed its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The name was then changed to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The association expanded Negro History Week to Black History Month in 1976. That same year Woodson’s home was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2003, after years of effort, the U.S. Congress authorized the National Park Service to acquire the house and operate it as a museum, an office for the association, and as a National Historic Site. Renovation on the house began in 2004. During the renovation the association’s headquarters was temporarily moved to Howard University.
A library in Chicago was named in honor of Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1975. In 2003 a ceremony was held for the installation of a historical marker in his honor in West Virginia. In 2004 the state of Virginia’s Archives and History Department honored Woodson with a historical marker near his birthplace. Also in 2004, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, finally opened to the public the collection of papers, books, and other materials that Woodson and the association had donated to the university’s library. Lorenzo Johnson Green, a former president of the association, once said, “The Association is indelibly stamped upon me. It is my cause and shall transcend everything else, even my allegiance to Woodson” (1989, p. 424).
In the first decade of the new millennium the ASALH is a membership organization that has more than twenty branches in many U.S. cities and college campuses. Every year its members choose a new African-American history theme on which to focus for the year. In 2007, for instance, the focus was from slavery to freedom. The association hosts an annual conference—a tradition that began in 1915—where researchers, historians, and scholars present the newest research on African-American history and related topics. Throughout the year they offer teacher training, book signings by new and noted authors and scholars, student activities, and cultural and historical programs. Their annual awards luncheon honors historians, scholars and researchers who have made significant contributions to African-American history. In 2000 the association part-nered with the Library of Congress to create an oral history project to collect the stories of U.S. veterans. The Black History Bulletin, a publication targeted to primary and secondary teachers, continues to be published semi-annually.
SEE ALSO Bethune, Mary McLeod.
Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “About ASALH: Mission, Vision, Structure, Activities.” Available from http://www.asalh.org/aboutasalhmain.html.
Douglass, Frederick. 1863. “The, Past, Present and Future of the Colored Race.” Douglass Monthly January (final issue).
Goggin, Jacqueline. 1993. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Greene, Lorenzo. 1989. Working with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History: A Diary, 1928–1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
———. 1996. Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson: A Diary, 1930–1933. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. 1986. The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. 1986. Black History and the Historical Profession 1915–1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Thorpe, Earl E. 1971. Black Historians: A Critique. New York: William Morrow.
Wesley, Charles H. 1965. “Our Fiftieth Year: The Golden Anniversary.” Negro History Bulletin 28 (Special Summer Issue).
Woodson, Carter G. 1940. “Editorial.” The Negro History Bulletin 25 (October): 422–431.
———. 1970. A Century of Negro Migration. New York: AMS Press.