Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, first began his journey to promote black life and culture 100 years ago on the South Side of Chicago.
On Sept. 9, 1915, he founded a study group that became known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Woodson wanted to preserve and disseminate black history for the masses at a time when it was perceived that Negroes had no history.
The belief was that Woodson started the national association as a response to the 1915 racist movie “Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith.
“We know that wasn’t the complete story,” said Lionel Kimble, a history professor at Chicago State University and ASALH Chicago president. “Woodson saw something dynamic about black life here in Chicago. This was a very fluid, ever changing, important black community so it was very appropriate that Woodson was here.”
Woodson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago before receiving a PhD from Harvard University. Because of housing segregation patterns, he couldn’t stay on campus or other neighborhoods. His limited choices led him to bunk at the YMCA on 37th and Wabash in the city’s Black Belt. It became the site where Woodson founded the association. By then, he had received his PhD from Harvard University — the second black to do so after W.E.B. Dubois — and kept returning to Chicago.
On Wednesday, scholars and history buffs unveiled a commemorative plaque at the Bronzeville YMCA. Several centennial events are planned for Chicago through the weekend.
“One hundred years later we still have this organization,” said Darlene Clark Hine, a professor at Northwestern University. “This organization has essentially created and sustained a space for the production and teaching of African-American history at all levels from the grammar school all the way up to the university. Not too many organizations have been in the vanguard of developing and challenging us to learn more about the contributions and the experiences of African Americans to the creation of this country.”
Woodson went on to create Negro History Week in the 1920s, which eventually became Black History Month. ASALH is based in Washington, D.C. at Howard University with members and chapters all across the country. ASALH puts on an annual conference, sets the theme for Black History Month each year and conducts various public and local history projects.
The association is unique in that it’s not just for the academy. Anyone interested in black history can join.
Chicago centennial events
A commemorative lecture entitled “Librarian as Cultural Broker, Vivian Gordon Harsh and the Creation of an Archive” will be delivered by Rutgers University historian Brittney Hall in memory of ASALH and Woodson, who is also the founder of Black History Month, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10 at the Carter G. Woodson Library, 9531 S. Halsted St., Chicago.
A program and panel discussion on “Institution Building in Chicago” will be held beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11 in the Chicago State University Library, 9501 S. Martin Luther King Dr., Chicago.
A panel discussion on “The Life and Legacy of Carter G. Woodson and the Importance of Black Institution Building” will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12 at the Du Sable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, Chicago.