The founders of Black History Month fought a lonely uphill battle

When Dr. Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926 — now Black History Month — it was a lonely time to be a black historian.

At that time, it was nearly pointless to argue that African-American contributions to history deserved equal consideration with those made by white people.

The academy’s top history posts were all occupied by white men. And they studied the history of white people.

Today, people of all colors celebrate Black History Month.

And what we now understand is that the African-American experience is not an “alternate” view or a “specialized” history.

Black history is American history, and it occupies a central place in that history.

But that was nearly an impossible sell in 1926, because it would require academic historians to rethink the whole way they approached doing history. (This is a humbling realization for someone like me, who relies on academic historians for information and insights.)

Dr. Woodson had more than just a thorough knowledge of black history. He had a deep understanding of white American history that was rejected by nearly all white historians during his lifetime.

‘The problem of the color-line’

W.E.B. DuBois was a staunch ally of Dr. Woodson’s and shared his interpretation.

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” DuBois wrote in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk.

This was the book that introduced his powerful notion of the “invisible veil” that separated white and black experience — and there was no better image to describe the divide between white and black narratives of history at that moment.

The view advanced by DuBois and Woodson would ultimately prevail among historians. At the time, however, hardly any white observer agreed that race was going to be a major problem in the new century.

But white historians didn’t see what DuBois and Woodson saw happening in their communities. No sooner had lynchings died down than there were race riots, eugenics, and a resurgent Klan.

These leading black scholars believed that the ongoing racism and violence against people of color was a direct result of white America’s failure to deal with civil rights during the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War.

Reconstruction — good or bad?

It had started promisingly. In 1865 Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to help the South’s four million newly liberated slaves obtain equal access to jobs, housing, education, and the ballot box.

But Southern whites, DuBois argued, felt that putting blacks on equal footing with them was an unpardonable offense by the government.

“The very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and better men had refused even to argue—that life amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments,” he wrote.

White academics, by contrast, took a different view of Reconstruction. They argued that the U.S. had given black men in the South too much power and was so humiliating to whites that they were left no choice but to fight back.

Two Columbia University history professors, John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning, gave this view the authority of scholarship in the early 1900s.

For Burgess, the original sin was in trying to give political power to an inferior race.

“The North is learning every day,” Burgess wrote, “that it is the white man’s mission, his duty and his right, to hold the reins of political power in his hands for the civilization of the world.”

His colleague Dunning went further, arguing that the government’s real agenda was to put white Southerners under the thumb of blacks.

Reconstruction, wrote Dunning was not a civil rights campaign but “the struggle through which the southern whites, subjugated by adversaries of their own race, thwarted the scheme which threatened permanent subjection to another race.”

White history and the Klan

As anyone who has seen “Birth of a Nation” knows, this threat of black subjugation is what justifies the glorious rise of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s film.

“Birth of a Nation’s” popularity, in turn, led to the KKK’s second coming in the 1920s.

White historians didn’t know what to do with millions of upstanding Midwesterners marching down Main Street in white capes and hoods, the cross burnings, the racial intimidation … so they simply left that chapter out of their books.

As one observer noted, “the 1920s we think we know — a Gatsbyan bacchanal of speakeasies, flappers and mob hits — was just an urban, coastal bubble,” with the Klan’s resurgence left out.

And that is how a warped view of black history leads to a warped view of white history.

Woodson died in 1950, having seen little shift in scholarship toward his point of view. But he gave us Black History Month, and DuBois, in his vigorous old age, carried on Woodson’s legacy, advancing black scholarship’s non-racist, fact-based interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath. And he lived long enough to see a growing number of black and white historians in the academy support it.

The early 20th century was a lonely time to tell the truth about white history to white America. But Woodson and DuBois did it, and we should remember their work during Black History Month … and the rest of the year too.

Dig deeper

Read the bracing six-page typewritten manuscript, “The War to Preserve Slavery,” that DuBois wrote in 1960. Did you watch PBS’s excellent “The Gilded Age” (streaming through March 6)? The South’s rewriting of Civil War history is perhaps the biggest event of that era that wasn’t covered in the film. Southern Poverty Law Center has a new website for educators to address the chronic problem of bad Civil War history in our schools.

Important programs on Quindaro and George Washington Carver are coming up in KC.

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