- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It’s a recent Saturday morning in the gymnasium at Shiloh Baptist Church in the District, and about 20 youngsters 8 to 13 are listening raptly to a ranger from the National Park Service as he tells them about someone who lived long before they were born.

It doesn’t seem to matter that school doesn’t come around again until Monday; the level of excitement and the number of eager hands in the air lets you know that learning doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.

“This man was a genius,” says Joy Kinard, the National Park Service ranger in charge of the program, who manages with a few words and simple gestures to command the attention of the entire group, even the handful of parents sitting against the wall.

“He was an educator and a historian. He spoke many languages, and he wrote many books.”

Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), the subject of all this attention, would be proud. Today, his brainchild, Black History Month, which he began as Negro History Week in 1926, is a fixture on the American calendar and permanently established in the American consciousness.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH, which Mr. Woodson founded in 1915 as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, on Saturday celebrates its annual luncheon.

And the home where Mr. Woodson lived and worked at 1538 Ninth St. NW is being readied for opening by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site.

In the meantime, there are programs like this one.

“We really wanted to do something at the community level,” says Ms. Kinard, who holds a master’s degree in public history from Howard University and is working on her doctorate.

“And we have strong ambitions to get more children from the metropolitan area to know who he was.”

Black history for all

Mr. Woodson’s influence carried well beyond his efforts as the founder of Black History Month or as an institution builder. And his presence in the nation’s capital reached well beyond the confines of his home. That’s fitting for someone who didn’t want the history of black Americans to be reduced to a simple litany of names and achievements.

“It’s not just stop lights and shoe soles,” says Daryl Scott, chairman of the History Department of Howard University and an ASALH board member, referring to two inventions by black Americans that are often trotted out this time of year — Garrett A. Morgan’s traffic signal, patented in 1923, and Ronald S. Demon’s adjustable-support sole for athletic shoes, patented in 1998 while he was still a student at MIT.

“We don’t want to deny those achievements, but we want to look at how African Americans have shaped larger questions of freedom and liberty over time.”

Mr. Scott notes that Mr. Woodson wrote 19 books, including 1933’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” still in print and available in a new edition. He also wrote countless unsigned columns and editorials as the editor of the Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin.

“Most people don’t have an appreciation of Woodson as an intellectual,” says Mr. Scott. “But between 1925 and 1945, he was perhaps one of the leading intellectuals in the black community.”

Teaching for equality

Mr. Woodson was born Dec. 19, 1875, in West Virginia to James and Anne Eliza Woodson, both of whom had been enslaved. It wasn’t long before the young Woodson was showing an intellectual precociousness and love of reading that easily equaled that of one of his early heroes, Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact that he was working in the West Virginia coal mines during his teen years and didn’t graduate from high school until he was 21.

“He would teach the coal miners to read by reading newspapers to them,” says Robert Parker, site manager for the Park Service at the Carter G. Woodson Home.

But what confounded Mr. Woodson was that there was so little mention of black Americans in the history books he read.

“He didn’t see a reflection of who he was,” Mr. Parker says. “He wanted to combat that, and he felt it would improve race relations if people could see each other as equals.”

Fluent in French and Spanish, Mr. Woodson came to Washington in 1909. He began to teach French, Spanish, English and history at the M Street High School, located first at M Street Northwest between New York and New Jersey avenues (the building still stands) and then at First Street Northwest between O and N.

The M Street High School was among the pre-eminent public high schools in the United States. In 1899, students at the segregated school, which was renamed in honor of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1916, surpassed the white students at the District’s Eastern and Western high schools on standardized tests.

Mr. Woodson went on to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1912, only the second black American to receive one from that institution. (The first was W.E.B. DuBois, in 1896.)

Resistance through learning

Mr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, a period referred to by many historians as the nadir of race relations in the United States — an era of Jim Crow laws and habitual racism exemplified by the release in 1915 of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and by the failure of an anti-lynching bill in the U.S. Congress in 1922.

“You have to think in terms of where America was at this time,” says Mr. Parker. “African American history was unheard of in terms of America taking it seriously.”

So in 1916, Mr. Woodson started the Journal for Negro History (today the Journal for African American History) and in 1937 the Negro History Bulletin (now the African American History Bulletin,) aimed at younger readers.

He also operated a publishing business, Associated Publishers, founded in 1921 to disseminate works related to black American history.

In 1918 he served as principal at Armstrong Technical High School, still standing at First and O streets Northwest, before moving to the history department at Howard University. After a two-year stint at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute as president, he returned to Washington in 1922.

He originated Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the week in February that encompassed the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and that of Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14. In 1976 the commemoration was expanded to the entire month.

Neighborhood legend

Mr. Woodson lived at several different addresses around the Washington area before 1915, when he purchased the Ninth Street building. He loved to eat at the 12th Street Branch of the YMCA at 1816 12th St. NW (later called the Anthony Bowen YMCA), and was an occasional guest at poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’s famed Saturday night sessions at her home in LeDroit Park, where the city’s black elite would gather to discuss philosophy, share poetry, and analyze issues of the day.

Over the years, a number of notables worked with Mr. Woodson, including the poet Langston Hughes, the historian Rayford Logan and the educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who for a time lived up the street from him at 1812 Ninth St.

But he still had time for children from the neighborhood.

“My brother used to serve papers on his street, the Afro and the Washington Times-Herald,” says Lenora Snipes, who dropped by Shiloh to share her memories of Mr. Woodson. “He used to love to go up to Dr. Woodson’s library and just read.”

Ms. Snipes’ brother, who died in June at 71, was the haberdasher John “Butch” Snipes, known as the “Mayor of U Street,” who became a walking compendium of the history of the Shaw neighborhood.

Deacon Alpheus L. Mathis, whose father worked as a “gofer” for Mr. Woodson when he came to Washington from Georgia in the early 1940s, remembers a man who was a little distant.

“We really were in awe of him,” says Mr. Mathis. “My father did these minor duties so Dr. Woodson could do his major work.”

What everyone does agree on was how dedicated Mr. Woodson was to his cause. Fiercely private, he never married and was rarely photographed with a smile on his face.

“He was a scary figure in some ways,” says Mr. Scott. “He makes the rest of us look like hypocrites, he worked so hard.”

After Mr. Woodson’s death in 1950, his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History continued to operate at 1538 Ninth St. NW until 1971, when it moved to 1407 14th St. NW.

A landmark home

The Woodson home, a three-story Victorian row house named a National Historic Landmark in 1976, is considered a fine example of late-19th century urban architecture. Its neighborhood, Shaw, is historically the center of activity for many blacks, thanks to the presence of a number of the city’s most influential black churches, the proximity of U Street, and prominent residents.

Blanche Kelso Bruce, Mississippi Republican and the first black American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate (from 1875 to 1881), lived in Shaw, as did Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington when he was a teenager. So did Lillian Evans Tibbs, “Madame Evanti,” (1890-1967) the first internationally acclaimed black professional opera singer.

Despite its landmark status, the house was shuttered and derelict for years since its owner, the ASALH, moved out. The National Park Service bought it from ASALH for $465,000 in 2005, and it became the 389th unit of the National Park Service system in 2006, thanks in part to the efforts of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat, who backed legislation in Congress to establish the home as a National Historic Site.

Currently the place is being vetted by a Park Service-supervised team that includes historians, architects, structural engineers and ASALH.

“There are a lot of steps to take before we can get it where we want it,” Mr. Parker says. “We’re just beginning the process at looking at the direction of this historic site.”

Steps include stabilization and security measures for the building, as well as deciding upon interpretive themes and the use of space for eventual exhibits.

In the meantime, the project that is the Carter G. Woodson Home operates out of the nearby Mary McLeod Bethune Council House at 1318 Vermont Ave. NW. That’s fitting, since Mary McLeod Bethune and Mr. Woodson were neighbors and collaborators; she sat on the board of the association when it was the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

“The reason that the National Archives of Black Women’s History exists today is because of her work with Woodson and the association,” Mr. Parker says. “She applied those same principles of her work with him to women’s history.”

Living history

These days, the ASALH has temporary quarters at 525 Bryant St. NW on the campus of Howard University, where Mr. Woodson worked for many years.

A glance through the ASALH archives is particularly revealing, with letters from Langston Hughes; from historian Benjamin Quarles, whose first scholarly article, “The Breach Between Douglass and Garrison,” appeared in Mr. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History in 1938; and from a young John Hope Franklin, the Medal of Freedom and Kluge Prize winner who is now the James B. Duke professor of history at Duke University.

There’s even a new discovery, in the form of an unpublished manuscript titled “The Case for the Negro,” that Mr. Scott came across while looking for something else. Still in its original envelope, the manuscript dates from 1921, the year before Mr. Woodson retired from teaching to devote his interests full time to the Association.

“This is incredibly exciting,” says Mr. Scott, who is editing the work for publication next year.

Because when you come right down to it, there’s a lot more about Mr. Woodson and his work that you can pack into just one month — which is why the youngsters at Shiloh Baptist Church plan to keep on finding out new facts well beyond Feb. 28.

“He was very important,” says Danielle Rollins, 10, one of the “junior historians” crowding the tables.

“He wanted people to know that there were black people in their history, and he wanted people to love learning.”

Discovering Woodson

If you’re on the trail of Carter G. Woodson in the District, here are a few places to get you started:

• The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH): 525 Bryant St. NW, Suite C142. Founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915 as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the ASALH keeps its headquarters on the campus of Howard University. It will hold its annual Black History Month luncheon at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1000 H St. NW, on Saturday. 202/865-0053 or www.asalh.org

• The Carter G. Woodson Home: 1538 Ninth St. NW. A National Historic Landmark that the National Park Service plans to open to the public as a National Historic Site. Much restoration is still to be done. 202/673-2402. See nps.gov/cawo and asalh.org/WoodsonHome.html.

• The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site: 1318 Vermont Ave. NW. The first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, the house also served as Mary McLeod Bethune’s D.C. residence. A bookstore is on site, with much material devoted to Mrs. Bethune, Woodson and black history. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday year-round; closed on major holidays. The last tour starts at 4 p.m. The National Archives for Black Women’s History is open by appointment only. Information 202/673-2402; Archives 202/673-2402, ext. 240. See nps.gov/mamc.

• “Blazing Trails: Black Cowboys And Cowgirls”: Lecture by the East Coast Rough Riders on black cowboys and the Buffalo Soldiers, and a living-history presentation about “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, who was born enslaved during Andrew Jackson’s presidency and went on to deliver the mail in what was then the still-wild West. 6:30-8 p.m. tomorrow. Free. 202/673-2403.

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