Carter G. Woodson was the second black man to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University. W.E.B. DuBois was the first. Woodson received his in 1912 – 17 years after DuBois completed the program. One thing that both young scholars faced during their time at Harvard was an unyielding belief that black people had contributed nothing to world civilization. Woodson himself recalled that many of his professors belittled the idea that people of African descent played a vital role in world history.
So it is an acknowledgment to the vital role that Woodson played in transforming the scholarship on the role that blacks played in American and world history that his alma mater now boasts the nation’s most renown departments of African and African American Studies.
That department, like African and African American studies departments at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University, provide courses and research in a variety of topics including economics, history, arts (culture), religion, sociology and psychology.
These are all topics that Woodson addressed through the establishment of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the 18 books that he wrote. Woodson wrote anthropological books that served as in-depth studies of diverse demographics within the black community at a time when the larger society viewed blacks as an uneducated monolith. He wrote histories that uncovered the unknown and neglected history of Africa. He wrote historical books about the the black church and anthropological overviews of African folk tales. In the “Mis-education of the Negro,” Woodson wrote a great work of cultural criticism that is as relevant now as it was when the book was published in 1933.
So it would be hard to find an aspect of scholarship on black history that has not been influenced by Woodson. The term Afrocentricity became vogue in the 1990s. Afrocentricity is defined as “placing African ideals at the center of any analysis that involves African culture and behavior.” It is an outgrowth of the work of Woodson and others who transformed the study of Africa and the diaspora into a scholarly pursuit.
As another Black History Month – an observance established by Woodson 87 years ago – recedes into the history books, it is instructive to view questions about its relevance as a legitimate topic of debate and an acknowledgment of the success that Woodson and his descendants had in transforming the way people think about black history.
Whether a scholar is writing about the impact that the great migration of the mid-20th Century had on the economics, politics and culture of northern cities such as Chicago or Detroit or reciting a list of black achievers, the importance the blacks played in history is no longer in doubt. We have Woodson to thank.