“The Association for the study of the Negro is standing like the watchman on the wall, ever mindful of what calamities we have suffered from misinterpretation in the past and looking out with a scrutinizing eye for everything indicative of a similar attack.”
—Carter G. Woodson (1936)
Carter G. Woodson was a Black educator, historian of Black education, and the father of Black History Month (incepted as Negro History Week in 1926). The second Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1912 (the first being W. E. B. Du Bois in 1895), Woodson led a broadly accomplished life, but for this post, we want to focus particularly on the circumstances that led to his founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915.
Woodson was born in 1875, ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. As such, he was part of the first generation of Black Americans born into a post-slavery America and was educated by those who had illicitly and surreptitiously educated themselves under an oppressive anti-Black society and specific anti-literacy laws the pre-dated the foundation of the nation. Black people’s self-education and the passing of knowledge among their community, what Jarvis Givens terms “fugitive pedagogy,” was the sort of fact of Black history that Woodson sought to record and describe in his work (see The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861).
Nor did fugitive pedagogy practices become irrelevant after emancipation. Black education remained under assault, politically through white supremacists’ degradation of the idea of Black people’s capacity to learn and physically in the form of violence against Black educators and places of education. It was in this atmosphere that Woodson was educated, taught by his uncles, James and John, who were themselves engaged in learning in the freedpeople’s schools. From this starting point, Carter Woodson carried forward a love of learning and an appreciation for the history and precarity of Black learning.
In 1915, three years after earning a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, Woodson founded the ASNLH. In the beginning of that year, the film Birth of a Nation was released, heralded as an innovative achievement in film production, screened at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, and widely protested by Black Americans for its portrayal of Black people and the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the 50th anniversary of Emancipation. That summer, while researching in Chicago, Woodson was invited by Ida B. Wells-Barnett to give a lecture in promotion of his first book on the history of Black education. Two weeks later, during the Illinois HalfCentury of Negro Freedom Exposition, Woodson worked at a booth selling books and photographs of historical Black figures, highlighting the history of Black political activism. In the third week of August, he began corresponding with Jesse E. Moorland, a minister from Washington, DC, proposing the creation of an organization “to save the records of the Negro that posterity may know the whole truth.”
On September 9th, Woodson held a meeting with George C. Hall, Alexander Jackson, William B. Hartgrove, and James E. Stamps at the Wabash Avenue Colored YMCA. The attendants discussed the release and reception of Birth of a Nation, the rise in anti-Blackness that it both indicated and stoked in American society, and Woodson’s idea for an organization aimed at protecting and teaching the true history of Black achievement. In January of 1916, their new association, the ASNLH, published the first issue of the Journal of Negro History. Both their association and the journal persist today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Journal of African American History.
In this time of renewed attack on the teaching of Black history in the guise of a moral panic against Critical Race Theory, it feels apropos to remember Woodson and his efforts in preserving and promoting the history of Black America, the full and true history of the American nation.
“Our modern word pedagogy derives from an ancient term for a slave who was tasked with teaching. The Greek paidagōgós, later Latinized as paedagogus, refers to a slave of relatively “high status” (if you will) who escorted children to and from a site of learning. Paedagogi were responsible for the moral development of their charges. They carried the children’s books, supervised them, and sometimes taught them foundational educational skills. This person—though enslaved—made learning possible. The enslaved also embodied unwritten lessons for the young master: they taught lessons of power to charges who wielded authority over them by virtue of their differentiated social status and bloodlines, and the former’s status as property. The perspective of the enslaved yields a different script of knowledge, however, a witness to systems of power that rely on their subjection. This has implications for pedagogy in a universal sense, but it is particularly generative for thinking about pedagogy in our modern world, ushered in by racial chattel slavery.
In that fugitivus (Latin) means flying, fugitive, or running away (“esp. a runaway slave”) and that paedagogus names the slave who makes learning possible, paedagogus fugitivus, then—the fugitive pedagogue—might be interpreted as the absconded slave who disrupts the dominant, systemized protocols of knowledge production and transferal, how knowledge is produced and the conditions under which it is taught. In fleeing from their assigned role in the order of things, paedagogi inspire new lessons. Their flight prefigures alternative paths of learning, new systems and ceremonies of knowledge. An education beyond paths that serve as a pass-through initiation for those in power, where the paedagogus is simply a prop in the enlightenment process of young masters, the elite, those of noble blood.”
–Jarvis Givens. Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, 229-30
Jarvis Givens, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching
Carter G. Woodson Portrait by Sassa Wilkes