Friday, April 3, 2020

The father of black history

‘Now about Woodson himself. He is the most arrogant, scornful, and depressing person I have ever been associated with. He has a virulent temper, but does not like to see the same manifested by another. He is puffed up with his own importance and deprecates that of everyone associated closely with him. He possesses a humor which rankles, instead of warms, a wit which makes me wish to strangle him at times.’ This is the damning assessment of Carter G. Woodson, a hero of the early 20th century US black movement, by one of his assistants, Lorenzo Greene. Woodson, who died 70 years ago today, was one of the first scholars to study the history of the African diaspora; he was also the founder of The Journal of Negro History and Black History Week. Greene, a significant scholar in his own right, worked for Woodson in the 1920s/1930s, and kept a detailed diary. This was published posthumously in two volumes, Working with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History and Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia, in 1875, the son of former slaves. Both of his parents were illiterate although, after being freed, his father worked as a carpenter and farmer. Aged 17, Woodson followed his brother to Huntington, to attend a new secondary school for blacks, Douglass High School. But, being obliged to work (as a coal miner) he was unable to attend full time, at least until he was 20. He finally received his diploma in 1897, and went to teach in Winona. In 1900, he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. By studying part-time, he earned a degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903. From that year until 1907, he worked for the US government as a school supervisor in the Philippines. On returning to the US he achieved a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and, in 1912, a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.

In 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to encourage scholars to engage in the intensive study of the black past (previously the field had been largely neglected or distorted). The following year, Woodson edited the first issue of the association’s principal scholarly publication, The Journal of Negro History, which, under his direction, remained an important historical periodical for more than 30 years.

Woodson became dean of the College of Liberal Arts and head of the graduate faculty at Howard University (1919-1920), and dean at West Virginia State College (1920-1922). While there, he founded and became president of Associated Publishers focusing on books about black life and culture. He, himself, wrote several important books: The Negro in Our History (1922), The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915); and A Century of Negro Migration (1918). In 1926, he proposed and launched the annual February observance of Negro History Week, which later. from 1976, became Black History Month. His most ambitious project - a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana - was incomplete at the time of his sudden death on 3 April 1950. Further information is available at Wikipedia, African American Museum, NAACP, Time or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Although there is no evidence that Woodson kept diaries, one of his associates, Lorenzo Greene, did - these are held in an archive of Greene’s papers at the Library of Congress. Greene was born in 1899 in Ansonia, Connecticut, receiving his BA from Howard University in 1924 and his MA in history from Columbia University in 1926.  From 1928 to 1933, he served as a book agent for, and research assistant to, Woodson, then the director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He went on to serve as instructor and professor of history at Lincoln University in Jefferson City from 1933 to 1972. He married Thomasina Tally in 1942. The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 is considered his most important work. He died in 1988. Further information is available at BlackPast.

Towards the end of his life, Greene began editing his diaries. A first selection of extracts was 
edited by Arvarh E. Strickland and published posthumously in 1989 by the Louisiana State University Press as: Working with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, a Diary, 1928-30. Wikipedia notes that Robert L. Harris of Cornell University described the book as ‘one of the few documents that provide insight into the early growth of the field of Afro-American history and the life of Woodson’.

A second selection, also edited by Strickland, was published in 1996 by the University of Missouri Press as Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson: A Diary, 1930-1933. Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks. ‘Greene describes in the diary,’ the publisher states, ‘often in lyrical terms, the places and people he visited. He provides poignant descriptions of what was happening to black professional and business people, plus working-class people, along with details of high school facilities, churches, black business enterprises, housing, and general conditions in communities. Greene also gives revealing accounts of how the black colleges were faring in 1930.’

The publisher claims that the diary ‘provides a unique firsthand account of conditions in African American communities during the Great Depression [and] provides invaluable insights into the personality of Carter Woodson that are not otherwise available.’ Indeed, a less than flattering view of Woodson emerges from many of the diary entries. Here are several of those entries.

6 December 1930, Wilmington, Delaware
‘This morning I received six sets of books from Woodson’s office. He stated in his covering letter that I had failed to send certain monies for books to the office; that such was our agreement. I became so wrought up that I was of a mind to return at once to Washington, [and] tell Woodson to take the car and “go to hell.” But there was Poe, whom I had persuaded to come along with me. I could not leave him in the lurch; therefore, I said nothing. Together we sent Woodson $35; I remitted $13.98; Poe almost twice as much. Only in case the subscriber paid the entire amount in cash or check to the agent would we handle any funds belonging to the office. Yet his letter stated that Wilkey had sold twice as many books as I. Further that I must change my procedure and not keep the money belonging to the office “as I had done this summer.” He had, in fact, virtually branded me as a thief. God only knows what would have happened had he told me that to my face, for whatever my shortcomings and they are legion - I at least strive to be honest. I would not barter my honor and reputation for a few pennies. I wondered whether Woodson was trying to so anger me that I would give up the work; for, in the closing paragraph, he intimated that if I continued to attack the church, I would have to do so as a freelance. That would be evident to anyone. He probably was “quaking in his boots” because Rev. R. R. Wright, Jr., of Philadelphia replied to a statement I had made concerning the church, which Woodson believed might cause Negro ministers to withdraw their “support” from the Association. I believe John R. Hawkins, who is president of the Association, is behind this. He is also financial secretary of the A.M.E. Church and a political leader. My temper quickly subsided, for I knew that I had forwarded to the office whatever monies were due. [. . .]

As for the church, I did not give a “hang” whether it kept on mulcting the people or not. It could only do so until Negroes opened their eyes and refused to be “milked” any longer.

Now about Woodson himself. He is the most arrogant, scornful, and depressing person I have ever been associated with. He has a virulent temper, but does not like to see the same manifested by another. He is puffed up with his own importance and deprecates that of everyone associated closely with him. He possesses a humor which rankles, instead of warms, a wit which makes me wish to strangle him at times. Then, too, he reminds me of a politician. He has no honor. Like a reptile, he is sly [and] mole-like; he works underground, undermining his victim, until the latter is ready to step upon the hollow earth to his downfall. The case of Dr. [Charles H.] Wesley is still fresh in my memory. His word is like thin ice - easily broken. I refer here to his promises to me concerning the Negro Wage Earner. He will make mistakes and then place the blame on his subordinates. He has absolutely no regard for the feelings of others, but seems to believe that he has a God-given right to vent his spleen upon anyone. He can brook no subordinate position. He must be the ruler; he cannot share power; enemies he makes in profusion, who either abstain from supporting or else hinder the work. He doesn’t seem to care. His whole nature has been warped, bent, [and] blasted, I believe, by an unfortunate love affair. Since that time, he seems to revel in ascertaining the extent to which he can irritate others.

I do not believe he has one true friend in the entire world. He has countless acquaintances, thousands of admirers, but like Bismarck and others, he is not loved. He belongs to that group of mortals who, unloving and unloved, are prized because they possess some unique attribute that the world desires. What a shame! That Woodson is of this temperament renders it impossible for him to inspire younger black scholars to perfect themselves in Negro History with a view toward taking his place when death or infirmity shall cause him to relinquish the helm.’

16 December 1930
‘Another cold day. Late getting breakfast, for this work keeps me going so, night and day, that unless I rise late in the morning I find it difficult to receive adequate rest.

Cold as usual. Called upon several persons in North Philadelphia. Were not in, however. Called at the branch Y on North 43rd Street. Would telephone me regarding order. Don’t expect to hear from them.

Could not find Mr. Williams at home. Dr. Manley not in, either.

Received letter from Woodson. Came down off high horse. Asked what matter did it make whether or not 80c was sent in. Of course, none. Yet if such were the case why did he assume such a tone in reference to it so as to cause me to send him a threat of giving up the campaign? This leads me to believe that he can be smoked out of his blustering attitude if met with equal bluster and firmness. Mother wants me to come home for Christmas. Anxious to do so but hate to go empty-handed. My wish has been to visit home laden with presents for everyone. Can’t do so this year, however.’

18 December 1930
‘While shaving this morning, Poe brought me two copies of The Negro Wage Earner, my book, which Woodson has practically appropriated for his own. The cover is beautiful, jade green, with the authors’ names in gold. The jacket, however, is a vile bungling of incongruities. In the background is a factory; in the foreground a Negro wearing a collar and a tie and arrayed in a business suit. Woodson’s idea, no doubt, and perfectly correct because it is his.

Now for the most infamous of assumptions and fabrications; so wholly has Woodson taken to himself the credit for the book, that all he waives responsibility for is the collecting of the information - and not even all of that. All the correcting, supplementing, and reduction of the data to literary form are, he states, his. This is an infamous lie. I myself not only collected the data, but also put it in virtually the exact form, with the exception of a few expurgations, in which the book now stands. When I left on the bookselling campaign, the page proof read: Lorenzo J. Greene, The Negro Wage Earner. Whatever corrections were made, moreover, were carried out by me under his supervision. And as for his supplementary data, there is not an idea of Woodson’s in the entire book, save the inconsequential statement that some Negro farmers worked for white planters during weekdays and labored on their own farms on Sunday and holidays in order to make ends meet. This practice was to show one means of the increase in Negro farms during the transition period, from tenant farmer to farm owner.

When I left in July, the book was ready for its final printing. All corrections had been made on the page proof. To think that he would offer such a monstrous misrepresentation to the world is amazing. But as I remarked in a letter to him in September, little more can be expected from a person devoid of a sense of honor. Woodson never held a high place in my estimation, but now my regard for him in every respect, save scholarship, has sunk to its nadir.

As to the book, it contains some mighty errors, chiefly because Woodson did not know its contents. In his fine art of expurgating, he has made a laughing stock of himself. Where I stated that 90-95 percent of the Negro steel laborers in Pittsburgh were unskilled in 1917, Woodson cut out the remainder of the paragraph, left the above dangling in midair, then two or three pages later the statement is made and proved by Census figures that about one-third of all Negro laborers in factories were doing work “requiring greater or less skill’’. Then, too, his monumental ignorance of how space was to be allocated in respect to the different topics is evident when he stated in the catalogue announcement that, since most Negroes worked in domestic service and on farms, more space would be devoted to these occupations. That is just what I did not do, for I purposely devoted more space to the other occupations.’

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