How the founder of Black History Month rebutted white racism in a forgotten manuscript

Undated photograph of Carter G. Woodson. He lived in the District of Columbia for 30 years, and his home was a kind of one-man center for the study of black history from 1922 to 1950. There, he founded what has become Black History Month, and launched the study of African-American history as a respected discipline.

On a hot summer afternoon in 2005, Daryl Michael Scott, a history professor at Howard University, found himself sorting through 90 years' worth of boxes and piles of paper, looking for materials added to the original copy of "The Mis-Education of the Negro," the classic 1933 book by Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson, a historian, scholar and educator known as the "father of black history," spent his life advocating for scholarly research, study and publication of works about the African-American experience. In 1926, Woodson created Negro History Week to celebrate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both in February. The week later became Negro History Month, then Black History Month.

"If a race has no history," Woodson once wrote, "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."

"The Mis-Education of the Negro," Woodson's best-known work, became a manifesto for black leaders advocating radical social change. In 1999, Lauryn Hill won a Grammy for her album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," inspired by Woodson's classic.

The book had become so popular that when its original copyright expired, thousands of copies were being sold by bootleggers unaware that in 1969, the book had been updated. "Everyone was publishing the 1969 edition," Scott said, "which was not in the public domain."

So, during that summer in 2005, Scott found himself in a storage unit in Northwest Washington, on a mission to protect Woodson's intellectual property.

Scott discovered files that belonged to Rayford Logan, a Howard University professor and a former executive director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which Woodson had founded in 1915.

"I came across an envelope," Scott remembered. "I knew it was Woodson's writing when I opened the envelope. It was clear the language in the manuscript was Woodson's."

Scott, who had read virtually everything that Woodson had written and knew his life story, had never seen this manuscript.

Woodson's rise to prominence had been meteoric. He was born on Dec. 19, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia, to parents who were formerly enslaved. Woodson began his formal education when he was 19, enrolling in an all-black high school.

He went on to college, graduating from the University of Chicago with bachelor's and master's degrees in history in 1908. Four years later, Woodson became the second black man to earn a PhD at Harvard University. (William Edward Burghardt "W.E.B." Du Bois was the first. )

In 1922, Woodson founded Associated Publishers, a publishing agency, which he operated from his house in Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood. When Woodson died in 1950, he left behind mounds of documents. Most were sorted and donated to the Library of Congress.

Fifty-five years after Woodson died, Scott, the history professor who thought he had read everything written by Woodson, was astounded to find a typewritten manuscript titled "The Case of the Negro."

Woodson's handwritten notes were scrawled in the margins.

Scott's research revealed that "The Case of the Negro" had been written at the request of two black men, Channing Tobias and Jesse Moorland, who were prominent in the YMCA's movement for African-Americans. They asked Woodson to write a paper rebutting a 1912 book, "Present Forces in Negro Progress," written by W.D. Weatherford.

Weatherford, who was white, was then a well-known patron of black intellectuals, Scott said. He was also racist, dismissing black people as "a tropical race best fit for thriving in Africa."

Woodson's rebuttal in "The Case of the Negro" was a cutting social criticism of white racism and a defense of the black race. It showed a radical side of Woodson, Scott said.

Its opening paragraph was blistering: "Exactly what the Negro is in the anthropological sense is no more a perplexing question than the racial origin of the so-called white man," Woodson wrote. "The average Caucasian is no nearer the representative of a single type and in many cases no nearer to the actual white man than many so-called Negroes."

When Woodson completed his rebuttal, Tobias and Moorland backed out. It is likely that Woodson decided not to publish the manuscript because he did not want to anger financial backers.

Scott's rediscovery of the manuscript, which was published in 2009 by ASALH press with the title "Carter G. Woodson's Appeal," was applauded by scholars and students of Woodson's work.

In the book "African American History Reconsidered," Pero Dagbovie argues that "The Case of the Negro" was an important precursor to the classic "Mis-Education of the Negro," written 13 years later.

"The Case of the Negro," Dagbovie argues, is a clear "expression of Woodson's early radicalism" and should be considered "an important document of early twentieth-century African-American intellectual history."

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chair of the history department at Harvard, said Woodson "found his voice in 1933 with 'The Mis-Education of the Negro.' That is a more sophisticated critique. ... It was a critique of white historians who were racist and African-Americans who did not think African-American history was important in the first place."

"The Mis-Education of the Negro" points to the proud heritage of black people in the country, said Higginbotham, who called it "the evolution of 'The Case of the Negro.'"

Woodson's house, now a National Historic Landmark, still stands at 1538 Ninth St. in Washington. The three-story, 10-room house, which Woodson purchased in 1922 for $8,000, was a hub of activity for black intellectuals, writers, scholars, educators and poets.

The luminaries included Charles H. Wesley, Lorenzo Johnson Green, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick and John Hope Franklin, who all worked for Woodson. Alain Locke, Du Bois, civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg visited. Woodson gave writer Zora Neale Hurston a grant for research. In 1925, Langston Hughes began working for Woodson.

"My job was to open the office in the mornings, keep it clean, wrap and mail books, assist in answering the mail, read proofs, bank the furnace at night when Dr. Woodson was away," Hughes wrote in 1950.

Woodson was tireless in his advocacy for recording black history, often working 18-hour days.

"Those working with him seldom wished to keep the same pace," Hughes wrote. "One time Dr. Woodson went away on a trip which those of us in his office thought would take about a week. Instead, he came back on the third day and found us all in the shipping room playing cards. Nobody got fired. Instead he requested our presence in his study where he gave us a long and very serious talk on our responsibilities to our work, to history and to the Negro race."

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