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During National African American History Month, we honor the achievements and celebrate the rich her


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Title: During National African American History Month, we honor the achievements and celebrate the rich her

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During National African American History Month,
we honor theachievements and celebrate the rich
heritage of African Americans. Throughout our
Nation's history, African Americans from all
walks of life have offered their talents to the
betterment of American society. Scholars such
as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois were
early leaders who placed great importance on
educating all people about the need for justice
and racial equality. Athletes such as Jackie
Robinson and Althea Gibson persevered while
breaking the color barrier and competing at the
highest levels of sports. Musicians like Nat King
Cole and Billie Holiday lifted the American
spirit with their creativity and musical gifts.
Through their extraordinary accomplishments,
these leaders helped bring our Nation closer to
fulfilling its founding ideals. This year's
theme, Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of
Multiculturalism," honors an educator who taught
his fellow citizens about the traditions and
contributions of African Americans. His
dedication to educating Americans about cultural
diversity initiated this celebration of
African-American history. Our Nation is now
stronger and more hopeful because generations of
leaders like him have worked to help America live
up to its promise of equality and the great truth
that all of God's children are created
equal. Throughout African American History
Month, we celebrate the many contributions
African Americans have made to our Nation, and we
are reminded of their courage in their struggle
to change the hearts and minds of our citizens.
While much progress has been made, we must
continue to work together to achieve the promise
and vision of our great Nation. President
George W. BushJan. 29, 2008, Proclamation
One of the most inspiring and instructive stories
in black history is the story of how Carter G.
Woodson, the father of black history, saved
himself for the history he saved and
transformed. The skeletal facts of his personal
struggle for light and of his rise from the coal
mines of West Virginia to the summit of academic
achievement are eloquent in and of themselves and
can be briefly stated. At 17, the young man who
was called by history to reveal black history was
an untutored coal miner. At 19, after teaching
himself the fundamentals of English and
arithmetic, he entered high (secondary) school
and mastered the four-year curriculum in less
than two years. At 22, after two-thirds of a
year at Berea College in Kentucky, he returned to
the coal mines and studied Latin and Greek
between trips to the mine shafts. He then went on
to the University of Chicago, where he received
bachelor's and master's degrees, and Harvard
University, where he became the second black to
receive a doctorate in history. The rest is
history -- black history.
For in an extraordinary career spanning three
crucial decades, the man and the history became
one -- so much so that it is impossible to deal
with the history of black people without
touching, at some point, the personal history of
Carter Woodson, who taught the teachers,
transformed the vision of the masses and became,
almost despite himself, an institution, a cause
and a month. One could go further and say that
the systematic and scientific study of black
history began with Woodson, who almost
single-handedly created the Association for the
Study of Negro Life and History (now the
Association for the Study of Afro- American Life
and History) and the prestigious Journal of Negro
History. Not content with these achievements, he
ventured into the field of mass education,
creating the annual black history celebrations.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that
Woodson created these cultural monuments largely
by his own efforts. Defiantly independent, he
gave up the things most men hold dear -- family,
material comforts, fun and social relations --
and devoted his every waking hour to the task of
ensuring that blacks would escape "the awful fate
of becoming a negligible factor in world
thought." Like most pioneers, he was ridiculed
and attacked. But in the end, he prevailed.
It was no accident, historian John Hope Franklin
once said, that Carter G. Woodson accomplished
these things. History knew what it was doing when
it gave James Henry and Anne Eliza Woodson, two
former slaves, the honor of bringing Carter G.
Woodson into the world on December 19, 1875, a
bare 10 years after the end of the U.S. Civil
War, in New Canton, Virginia. The Woodson family
was impoverished and oppressed, and the future
scholar's childhood was bleak and unpromising.
Like so many of his contemporaries, he was denied
education, partly because there were few black
schools, partly because his father needed his
hands in the fields. But unlike many of his
playmates, he created an inviolate place within.
More than this, deeper than this, he perceived
early, as pioneer black educators Mary McLeod
Bethune and Benjamin E. Mays and others perceived
in similar circumstances, that the key to his
dungeon was education. And he decided early that
he was willing to do almost anything to get that
Driven by this need, young Carter, aided by two
uncles, taught himself the ABCs between
backbreaking hours in the field. Then,
accompanied by his brother, he moved in 1892 to
Huntington, West Virginia, which had one of those
rarities of the time, a high school for black
students. To get money to finance his education,
he went to work in the coal mines, braving
falling rocks, accidental explosions and
poisonous gases. He was injured one day by
falling slate, but he never turned back.
"Nothing could stop Carter," a cousin, John
Riddle, said. "He didn't stay in the mines long.
He was always interested in getting an
In fact, Woodson served, as he said later, a
six-year "apprenticeship" in the mines. He was 19
years old when he enrolled at Douglass High
School. After graduation and several semesters at
Berea College and a teaching assignment in
Winona, West Virginia, he returned to Douglass
High School, four years after his graduation, as
principal. There then followed an interlude of
teaching in the Philippines and graduate study at
the University of Chicago and Harvard. In 1909,
he turned a major fork of destiny, settling down
to a 10-year stint of teaching in Washington.
"When I arrived in Washington in 1909 and began
my research," he said later, "the people there
laughed at me and especially at my hayseed'
clothes. At that time I didn't have enough money
to pay for a haircut. When I, in my poverty, had
the audacity' to write a book on the Negro, the
scholarly' people of Washington laughed at it."
The laughing stopped in 1915. In the summer of
that year, the 39-year-old teacher received an
invitation to a Negro folklore conference at the
University of Chicago. Woodson turned the
invitation down, saying with characteristic
bluntness that he was not a folklorist and that
he didn't think the conference would accomplish
anything. He told the organizers "that something
else was taking shape in his mind." The
"something else" was quite unprecedented, a
national black historical society. Woodson
planned to organize the scholarly association
with flourishes and fanfare at a national
conference. This plan, however, was abandoned, he
said, "for the reason that it was not believed
that a large number of persons would pay any
attention to the movement until an actual
demonstration as to the possibilities of the
field had been made." Woodson believed in the
power of the deed. To his dying day, he believed
that the actual is more compelling than the
potential and that one ounce of real work is
worth more than a ton of speeches and
So believing and so saying, he asked a handful of
men to "join him in organizing, so to speak, in a
corner." The corner was the office of the
director of the Wabash Avenue YMCA (a social
organization) in Chicago. There, on September 9,
1915, Woodson and four others organized the
Association for the Study of Negro Life and
History. The purposes of the organization, in
Woodson's words, were "the collection of
sociological and historical data on the Negro,
the study of peoples of African blood, the
publishing of books in the field, and the
promotion of harmony between the races by
acquainting the one with the other." In the
beginning -- and for a long time thereafter --
the association was a one-man show with Woodson
producing, directing, writing, organizing,
sweeping the floor and providing most of the
money. Even after the organization was launched,
he said later, "few of the members were anxious
to assume any pecuniary responsibility and
therefore urged further delay before undertaking
to carry out the program."
Delay was not Woodson's style. And so on January
1, 1916, without consulting the Executive
Council, Woodson organized another "actual
demonstration," publishing at his own expense the
first issue of the Journal of Negro History. This
naturally enraged the Executive Council, and one
member, the only woman, resigned in protest.
Undaunted and undismayed, Woodson pressed on, and
the leaders reluctantly followed. Although
Woodson alienated some friends and supporters, he
succeeded by the power of example and the sheer
force of his personality in creating a structure
which published books, funded researchers and
shaped the thinking of large masses of people. In
1920, he organized Associated Negro Publishers
"to make possible the publication and circulation
of valuable books on colored people not
acceptable to most publishers." In 1922, after
serving as dean of Howard University and West
Virginia State, he left the teaching profession
and gave himself body and soul to the movement.
In the same year, he published one of the major
books in the history of Black America, The Negro
In Our History. On February 7, 1926, he organized
Negro History Week, which was expanded in the
1960s to Black History Month. This was perhaps
his proudest accomplishment. "No other single
thing," he said, "has done so much to dramatize
the achievement of persons of African blood."
What followed has been described many times but
nowhere as vividly as in Woodson's 25-year
report. "One interracial agency," he wrote,
"assuming the authority to dictate the leadership
of the Negro race in all matters in America and
in Africa, became most vicious in its attacks.
This agency prepared a memorandum setting forth
the reasons why the Association for the Study of
Negro Life and History should not be further
supported and clandestinely circulated it to lop
off the supporters of the Association. Finally,
it had the effect of depriving the Association of
the assistance of all foundations and the rich
people who had formerly assisted the
To counteract this underhand attack, Woodson
"began to organize the Negroes of the country to
obtain from them what the interracialists had
succeeded in diverting from this effort .... The
problem became still more difficult because of
having to pass through the worst depression the
country has ever had .... The success thus
achieved is a credit to the Negro race and serves
as eloquent evidence of the capacity of the Negro
for self-help. It serves also as eloquent
evidence of the courage and devotion of Carter G.
Woodson, who burrowed into the deep veins of the
black experience, like the coal miners of his
youth, returning to the surface, again and again,
with rich lodes of black gold.
It was for the young and for the future that he
rummaged in the past. He believed that you look
back in order to look forward. It was his faith
that "the achievements of the Negro properly set
forth will crown him as a factor in early human
progress and a maker of modern civilization."
That faith, a faith that reached religious
proportions, sustained him as he discovered and
organized new countries of the mind. When, on
April 3, 1950, he died at the age of 74, he had
erected millions of monuments to his own memory
in the hearts and minds of his people.
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