Every day when I leave the office, I pass Carter Woodson’s historic home on 9th Street in Washington, DC. Woodson, whose parents were enslaved, was denied access to public education in Virginia. As a result, his formal education did not begin until after he moved to West Virginia at the age of 19. Finishing high school within two years, Woodson subsequently received a bachelor’s degree from Berea College, an MA from the University of Chicago, and a doctorate from Harvard University.1 His scholarship in African American history, and its inextricable link to civic engagement, has shaped higher education and public history in profound and lasting ways.
Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and initiated Negro History Week, to be celebrated during the second week of February as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthday commemorations fell within that same week. Woodson’s commitment to ensuring that all Americans were educated in the public schools and community organizations about the contributions of African Americans has evolved into Black History Month.
In his groundbreaking book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson famously wrote:
When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.2
“Real education,” he reminded readers, “means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.” For Woodson, this inspiration required rewriting the narrative about race in America, unveiling the impact of those whose stories have been consigned to the lower shelves of history, and relinquishing the belief in a hierarchy of human value.
Woodson and his legacy were at the forefront of my mind last month as we welcomed colleagues from across the country to AAC&U’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Institute. Held just two miles from the site where Woodson launched his pioneering initiatives, representatives from twenty-nine institutions gathered to create action plans for championing our shared objections around destabilizing conscious and unconscious biases that have triggered racial violence in American society and eradicating structural barriers to equal treatment and opportunity within communities. In partnership with the W.K. Kellogg and Newman’s Own Foundations, AAC&U seeks to establish 150 Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation centers on college and university campuses of all types. We are particularly grateful for the leadership of our first ten campus centers and look forward to sharing their successes.
There were many moving moments during the institute—a brilliant and compelling performance by Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, whose one-woman multimedia show One Drop of Love explores the intersections of race, class, and gender in pursuit of racial and social justice, as well as love; group tours of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and a stirring session on “The Music of the Movement” led by University of Richmond President Ron Crutcher and Victoria Christgau, director of the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence. At the end of their session, I requested my favorite song from the Civil Rights Movement, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” I love the call and response pattern, the fact that the words are not fixed, and that there is something created anew with each verse. It is a song that offers hope and courage, informed by the stunning unity of those singing with a multiplicity of voices. I couldn’t help but hear Woodson’s own voice echoing in the background: “We’re gonna keep on walkin’/ Keep on talkin’ / Marchin’ into freedom land.”
1. Eastern National, Guidebook to African American History in the National Parks (Washington, DC: Eastern National, 2011), 10.
2. Carter Godwin Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933; repr., History is a Weapon, n.d.), http://historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/misedne.html.