Carter G. Woodson was a historian, author and journalist, known to many as the “Father of Black History Month.” And Kentucky is a part of his story.
Woodson was the son of formerly enslaved parents. After the Civil War, his family relocated to West Virginia, where he spent his childhood.
In 1897, he enrolled in Berea College in Kentucky, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in literature. Yet, Woodson spent much of that time outside of Kentucky.
Jessica Klanderud, director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education at Berea College, said that was in part because Woodson was already working full-time, as a high school principal in West Virginia. But Kentucky was preparing to strengthen its segregation laws while Woodson was attending Berea College. Klanderud said that political climate might have also contributed to why Woodson spent so little of his collegiate career in Kentucky.
Klanderud, who is also an assistant professor of African and African American Studies at the college, spoke to WFPL News about Woodson’s legacy in Kentucky and the Appalachian region.
On what drew Woodson to Berea College, which was founded by abolitionist John G. Fee:
“One of the things that I think made the choice to come to Berea perhaps different than other places that might have been available to him for education was Berea’s emphasis on interracial education. It also was not a technical education. So he could come to Berea and get the literature degree that he got as a bachelor’s degree rather than having to focus on kind of a more building trades or technical school education, which was what most people at the time felt was appropriate for Black men.”
On how much the Kentucky Day Law played a role in Woodson finishing his course work elsewhere:
Klanderud said they can’t say for sure how much of an influence this forthcoming law was because Woodson kept few autobiographical records. However, Woodson left Berea in 1903, and she said it’s “likely that the passage of what became known as the Kentucky Day Law in 1904,” was a factor.
“If you’re unfamiliar with the Day Law, it was a piece of legislation that forbid interracial education. It was targeted, I would say, only at Berea College because it was the only interracial educational institution in the state at the time. And so, Berea actually eventually fought the passage of that law all the way to the Supreme Court, where they lost. So that law became the law of the land in the era of Plessy versus Ferguson, the separate but equal decision was just a few years prior to that.”
On Woodson’s legacy on education in Appalachia and the country:
“One of the things that I find most fascinating is the ways his discussions of the importance of understanding Black history and teaching about it, and not just to black students, but for everyone, really has had just an incredibly long lasting legacy. Because even now, we’re still in this kind of moment where we’re fighting yet again, about how to teach about Black people, how to incorporate their stories into the full and expansive and rich history of Black people in Appalachia and Black people in the United States. And I think that his work, you know, ‘Miseducation of the Negro’ has been not just a handbook, an absolute guide for how to engage with these questions deeply, and how to bring them into the light in a way that edifies everyone.”
On how his work led to a month dedicated to Black history:
“He began with Negro History Week in 1926. The second week of February was chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And the reason for Negro History Week is Black History is not just enslavement, and mass incarceration, and the civil rights movement. There is joy and depth and art, and you know, all kinds of achievement and greatness that we don’t always hear about. Black Americans have been a part of the story of American history from the very beginning. In fact, Woodson often says that Black history is American history. And so it was important for him as a part of Negro History Week to really bring out the achievements of not only African kingdoms and the continent of Africa, but of Black people in the United States.”
On the bills before the state legislature that would restrict how teachers talk about U.S. history or race in the classroom:
“Perhaps a misunderstanding that these bills sort of feed into in some ways, is the idea that only by hearing the positive things will we grow to love our country more. And I think that that’s just not the reality. I mean, without being able to understand the hardships that we’ve overcome, without being able to see the way that you’ve grown and changed and developed… to more fully live out the idea that all men and women are created equal. The more we realize that that was kind of an aspirational statement that we had to grow into. And we still have to we have to choose that every day. To just not have the conversation or to say the discrimination is in the past, we sort of solved that with civil rights, I think that blinds us to the work that we all need to do now.”