Carter G. Woodson, a historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), launched Negro History Week on February 7, 1926. In 1976 it became Black History Month. Woodson endeavored to showcase the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans to American history and culture. He believed that it was important for history to reflect the significance of Black experience throughout the diaspora. Woodson was an important figure to the movement of Afrocentrism, due to his perspective of placing people of African descent at the center of the study of history and the human experience.
Born in Virginia, the son of formerly enslaved people, Woodson had to put off schooling while he worked in the coal mines of West Virginia. He graduated from Berea College, and became a teacher and school administrator. Earning graduate degrees at the University of Chicago, Woodson then became the second African American, after W. E. B. DuBois to obtain a PhD degree from Harvard University. Woodson remains the only person whose parents were enslaved in the United States to obtain a PhD in history. He taught at historically black colleges, Howard University and West Virginia State University, but spent most his career in Washington, DC managing the ASALH, public speaking, writing, and publishing.
Woodson was ostracized by some of his contemporaries because of his insistence on defining a category of history related to ethnic culture and race. At the time, these educators felt that it was wrong to teach or understand African-American history as separate from more general American history. According to these educators, “Negroes” were simply Americans, darker skinned, but with no history apart from that of any other. Thus Woodson’s efforts to get Black culture and history into the curricula of institutions, even historically Black colleges, were often unsuccessful.
Today, the Washington, DC home from which he accomplished so much of his work is a museum open to the public. Called the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, it is located at 1538 9th Street NW, in the Shaw neighborhood. He lived there from 1922 until his death in 1950. The home continued to serve as the national headquarters of the ASALH until the early 1970s. The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 but became vacant in the 1990s. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the site on its annual “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list. With advocacy by the NTHP, the DC Preservation League, community activists, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the National Historic Site was authorized by Public Law 108-192 on December 19, 2003, and established by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton on February 27, 2006.
In 2005, the property was acquired by the National Park Service, which opened it to the public in 2017. It is operated in conjunction with the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.
The three-story brick townhouse saw a great deal of activity: while the second floor of his home housed Woodson’s office and library, the basement served as a make-shift archives. Woodson preserved rare artifacts and collections that documented the African American and African Diaspora experience. In his annual report for 1941, he noted: “The Association…has on hand in its fireproof safe in the national office an additional 1,000 or more manuscripts which will be turned over to the Library of Congress as soon as they can be properly assorted. These manuscripts consist of valuable letters of the most noted Negroes of our time: Francis J. Grimke, Charles Young, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Theodore Greerer.”
Today, the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site is temporarily closed due to an ambitious renovation project. The anticipated reopening is scheduled for Spring of 2023.