Two Historians, Two Fighters

Two historians had a tremendous impact on the way we read United States history today: Carter G. Woodson and John Hope Franklin. These two outstanding scholars sought to overcome racial barriers and demonstrate the important role of Black Americans in the history of our nation. Both faced great challenges to their views and works, and both can be considered to have been successful in the fight for the equality of all races, especially in the field of History.

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson was a historian who specialized in Black History, and who was very active in promoting his interpretation of what History education should be. He can be considered an “indigenous-insider” (Banks, 2006), as he was of African American descent, grew up among Blacks and dedicated his career to enhance the quality of education that Blacks received. He also attempted to encourage better relations between Blacks and Whites, and was seen principally by Blacks as an advocate for their cause.

Born in 1875 to a very poor family, Woodson was the son of freed slaves and had first-hand knowledge of the plight of former slaves once they were free. This perspective was to influence his personal life and academic career. He enrolled at Huntington High School in 1895, graduating only eighteen months later. He would be asked to serve as the principal of that school only five years later (“Phylon Profile VI,” 2002).

Woodson chanced upon a magazine that contained an article about the relations between the races, and this caught his attention. He decided that he enjoyed the theme and enrolled at the college featured in the article: Berea College, where he learned Latin and stayed for a little under a year. Woodson then decided to work in the mines to earn a living, and use his spare time to read Latin authors, such as Virgil and Cicero (“Phylon Profile VI,” 2002).

After some time, Woodson was the recipient of a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he enrolled but stayed for only a few months. He then tried Howard University, but could not get along with one of the school officers; so he decided to go back to Huntington and became the principal of Huntington High School. He used his summers to attend Berea College and the University of Chicago, graduating with a Masters Degree in 1908.

Woodson’s international perspective may have arisen from his stay in the Philippines, travels while in Southeast Asia, and subsequent return home (“Phylon Profile VI,” 2002). Starting in 1903, Woodson lived in the Philippines, where he became a supervisor at a local school. After returning to the United States, Woodson taught in high schools in the Washington, D.C. area until 1918. During this period, he attended Harvard University and earned his Ph.D. in History.

During his stay in the capital, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (established in 1915), a very active organization to this day. Since its founding, the entity has changed names a few times, and is now known as Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He also started the Journal of Negro History, a landmark publication that is still in print under a new title, The Journal of African American History (Brown, Crowley, & King, 2011).

In 1919, Woodson was invited to serve at Howard University as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, only to depart for West Virginia’s Collegiate Institute in 1920. After a couple of years at that institution, Woodson decided that he needed to be more active in the cause of African Americans, and moved back to Washington. He then established the headquarters of the Journal of Negro History in his new home.

Woodson was very active in raising funds for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was one of its earliest supporters. He wrote numerous articles and books; among his works, the following stand out as highly influential: The education of the Negro prior to 1861 (1915), The Negro in our history (1922), The Mis-education of the Negro (1933), and his lessons prepared for Black schools.

John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin was another historian who has had a great impact in the studies of African Americans and the integration of their History into mainstream historical accounts. Born in 1915, Franklin was raised in an all-Black community in Oklahoma by parents who taught him not to accept racial discrimination (Banks, 2006).

Franklin attended Fisk University, and during that time was a victim, a witness of, or heard about, discriminatory activities, which left a profound mark on him. At the university, Franklin had both Black and White professors, and this exposure to both races allowed him not to have a “monolithic view of Whites” (Banks, 2006). One of his professors, Dr. Theodore Currier, had a profound influence on Franklin, causing him to decide to become a historian instead of a lawyer. Franklin then went to Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1941.

Franklin’s main focus as a historian was to bring African Americans to front and center of American history, moving them from the background and into the spotlight of mainstream historical narratives. He was a critic of how Blacks had been portrayed both in history books and in art, and focused on showing how African Americans played crucial roles in the history of this nation (Mitchell & Mitchell, 2010).

His career as a professor took him to Fisk University, Howard University, Brooklyn College, University of Chicago, and then to Duke University. During his first year at Howard University, Franklin published his best-known work, From slavery to freedom: A history of Negro Americans (1947), an attempt to showcase the importance of Black Americans in the history of the United States (Mitchell & Mitchell, 2010).

Woodson and Franklin in a Changing World

Carter Woodson and John Franklin shared similar professions and similar aims, and accomplished similar results. They both lived in a time of historical disturbances and radical change in the world, and were able to navigate the sea of change while helping to bring about the changes that they aimed for.

Woodson and Franklin both grew up in very poor families. They both had first-hand experience with discrimination and were influenced by their upbringing in the segregated South. Both men were able to attend college due to scholarships and/or the assistance of friends. They both had a relationship with Howard University, and most interestingly, earned their doctorates from Harvard University. The similar academic career may partially explain their somewhat similar approaches to the history of the United States.

Woodson started his writing career just as Communism was taking hold in Russia, whereas Franklin was born only two years before the Bolshevik Revolution. But both men would live to see at least the beginnings of the Cold War and the fear that it enticed. Franklin would live on to see the effects that the Cold War would have on society, such as the Red Scare (deep anticommunist sentiment that would culminate in a period of fear of “the other”), and would see the conclusion of the Cold War symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Franklin would witness the Civil Rights Movement and its goal of eradicating establishment-sponsored racism. He would also have the privilege of endorsing presidential candidate Barack Obama, who would be elected the first Black President of the United States (Franklin would die in 2009, only two months after President Obama took office).

Both men struggled to overcome an educational barrier to their works that, surprisingly, was deeply entrenched among Black scholars of their time: the idea that Blacks were intellectually inferior to other races (Browne, 2008, para. 7). Franklin’s writings were well received by some in the African American community and schools, but the intellectual establishment fought against his ideas. Woodson’s struggles to overcome resistance were characterized by a politicized approach through his support of NAACP and spotlighting Black Americans through his Journal of Negro History, which some labeled as “propagandist” (“Phylon Profile VI,” 2002). Here we see another difference between Woodson and Franklin: Woodson’s work was labeled as biased, whereas Franklin’s attempts at showcasing Black Americans were aimed at portraying equality and producing a more complete history of the United States. Inner-opposition to Woodson’s work continues to this day, as evidenced by recent calls for the abolishment of Black History Month (Monifa, 2002).

Both scholars struggled as they witnessed Black scholars shift their approach to desegregation to an embrace of the idea of educational segregation as a positive and more “culturally appropriate” way to educate Black Americans. This view is being challenged by modern scholars, and is likely to be overturned (Boaz, 2008).

Both Franklin and Woodson were viewed by their communities as “indigenous-insiders” (Banks, 2006)–they were both African Americans raised in Black communities, specialized in African American themes, and wrote about them in a perspective that was a positive influence and brought positive results to Blacks.

Woodson and Franklin both contributed to the globalization of education by helping to incorporate a marginalized segment of society into mainstream history, making them an integral part of the American fabric. A complete education cannot leave portions of society out of the narrative. This has inspired the same sentiment in other countries and in other fields of knowledge (Mullins, 2008), aiding those who fight against racism and discrimination in all their shades and manifestations—color, religion, sex, etc.—by giving them clear examples of how all human beings are important and can play active roles in the development of society and humankind as a race.

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References

Banks, J. (2006). Cultural diversity and education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Boaz, D. (2010). Equality does not mean conformity: Reevaluating the use of segregated schools to create a culturally appropriate education for African American children. Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, 7, 1.

Brown, A., Crowley, R., & King, L. (2011). Black civitas: An examination of Carter Woodson’s contributions to teaching about race, citizenship, and the black soldier. Theory & Research In Social Education, 39(2), 278-299.

Browne, M. (2008, February 14). Carter Woodson fought to educate us on our history. Share.

Mitchell, R., & Mitchell, R. (2010). Franklin, John Hope (1915–2009). In K. Lomotey (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African American education. (pp. 263-267). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412971966.n98

Monifa, A. (2002). Time to abolish the farce of Black History Month. Black History Bulletin, 65(1/2), 52.

Mullins, P. R. (2008). The politics of an archaeology of global captivity. Archaeological Dialogues, 15(2), 123. doi:10.1017/S1380203808002602

Phylon Profile VI: Carter G. Woodson. (2002). Black History Bulletin, 65(1/2), 7-11.

 

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