Carter G. Woodson, the Omega Psi Phi
Fraternity Inc., and the making of Black
Judson L. Jeffries – Author of original article
Of Black historians Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to earn a PhD at Harvard University, is perhaps the most widely recognized name among this generation of young Black college and non-college goers. His book The Mis-Education of the Negro is as popular today, perhaps even more so, than it was 80 years ago when it was initially published. From 1915 to 1942 Woodson published 22 books, nearly all of which were intellectually rigorous.
Inspired by his experience in Chicago during the 50th celebration of Emancipation and many well received displays of Negro history, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History), which included an annual academic convention as well as the Journal of Negro History. These creations afforded Black scholars, academics and activists a venue in which to present their papers and publish their scholarly articles documenting the accomplishments of Black people throughout the world. Few of the White academic associations were likely to extend an invitation to Black scholars. A Woodson quote expresses the strength of his life dedication – “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated”.
No African American is more responsible for the promotion of Black history, then or now, than Woodson. His no-nonsense demeanor, willingness to mentor, relentless work ethic and high expectations are well-documented. In 1984, in honour of the scholar-activist, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Woodson stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series. In 2001, the Carter G. Woodson House was placed on the National Trust for Historical Preservation list of Most Endangered Places in the U.S.
Woodson is considered the Father of Black History and is credited with being the founder of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed Negro History Week as the greatest single accomplishment to emerge from the Black artistic movement of the 1920s. Historian Rayford Logan commented that Negro History Week helped Blacks overcome their inferiority complex and instilled in them racial pride.
Early in the history of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., a meeting was convened to discuss the Fraternity’s ‘field of emphasis’ as it were. At this meeting sat several Omega luminaries including the revered Colonel Charles Young, a West Point graduate, Garnet C. Wilkinson , Woodson and John H. Burnell who actually suggested a program that stressed Negro history. Burnell, inspired by the stirring address delivered by Woodson at the Fraternity’s Ninth Annual Conclave held in 1920 at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, suggested a program that stressed Negro history. Woodson was at the time, Dean of West Virginia Institute (later named West Virginia State University). In his speech, Democracy and the Man Far Down, Woodson ‘urged the college man to give less attention to social affairs and devote more time to the study of Negro life . . . such knowledge he maintained, would produce an increase in the number of competent Negro leaders and would inspire race pride in the masses as a whole.’
Burnell’s recommendation was ‘instantly approved’; hence in 1921 The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. initiated a program called Negro History and Literature Week to be held in April of every year. The program was hugely popular on Black college campuses across America.
When Woodson completed his deanship at West Virginia Institute the Fraternity placed the program under his guidance. As its director, Woodson believed he could capitalize on the intellectual and artistic furor that surrounded the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, Woodson modified the name from Negro History and Literature Week to Negro History Week. He then switched the celebratory month from April to February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (both were widely celebrated in February at the time).
Black History Month (as it has grown into since the late 1970s) is celebrated by millions of people around the world. Dr. Woodson deserves credit for transforming what began as Negro History and Literature Week into the internationally recognized phenomenon of today.
Note: It’s never too late….Dr Carter G Woodson was 20 upon entering a formal high school setting and subsequently received his Doctorate Degree from Harvard. Education was important to him.