A credit to the race or a race man? Studying History

Carter Woodson, the “Father of Black History,” had very definite ideas about how the discipline of African American history should be developed.

In a 1927 letter explaining himself, Woodson wrote:

The fact is that the 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. . . . The Association [for the Study of Negro Life and History] is trying to bring before the world the whole truth that the truth may make men free. To do this it has decided not only to publish informing books but to offer by mail instruction in Negro life and history. . . for the special benefit of those who would like to study the aspects of African civilization which were neglected in the schools in which they were trained.

Woodson did not himself begin his academic career by pursuing such goals. His 1908 Masters thesis (see Future Intellectuals:  Carter G. Woodson section) focused on 19th-century Europe. Only after he proved himself as a historian by writing about Europe did he turn to topics like early Negro education in West Virginia and free Negro owners of slaves in the United States in 1830.

Similarly, between 1915 and 1921, Georgiana Simpson proved herself as a philologist by researching medieval German literature and German Romanticism. Only after completing this work did she apply her scholarly tools to African American culture, producing in 1924 a translation and edition of a biography of the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Woodson’s books about African American experience and Simpson’s edition of the L’Ouverture biography were both published by the press of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), thereby establishing models for scholarship in African American studies.