Meeting Dr. Woodson

Coming Face-to-Face with the Father of Black History

The bronze statue’s stern gaze conveys Dr. Woodson’s drive to accomplish his goals of making black history understood and appreciated. Photo: Alexander M. Padro.

African American History Month in 2016 marks the first time in over 60 years that visitors to Shaw will be able to sit down with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, in the neighborhood he called home.

He’ll be waiting for you every day on a tall, rounded stone bench in the triangle park at Rhode Island Avenue, NW at Ninth and Q Streets. You can sit beside him and watch the traffic and pedestrians go by. You can put your hand on his and run your hands over his books on the back of the bench. You can even talk to him.  Just don’t expect him to answer.

Dr. Woodson’s skin is the color of bronze, and so are his clothes. In fact, he’s actually made of the metal, and not just figuratively.

Carter Godwin Woodson died in 1950, but the Harvard-educated historian who pioneered the study of African American history as a profession and scholarly discipline is back in the neighborhood he called home for three decades, in the form a larger-than-life-sized statue by noted sculptor Raymond Kaskey, known in Washington for his work on the lions at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the eagles, wreathes and reliefs at the National World War II Memorial. The Woodson memorial, in a city park named for him in 2001, was completed last year and dedicated in December 2015.

As a historian and son of former slaves, Woodson understood that the contributions of African Americans to the nation’s history in a wide range of fields had been intentionally left out of history books and classrooms, and how that affected the self-image, lives and futures of people of color. “Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always as a child,” Woodson wrote in his 1935 book, “The Story of the Negro Retold.”

Woodson became one of the founders of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)) while on a visit to Chicago in 1915. Through the Association and its publications, like the Journal of Negro History, Negro History Bulletin, and dozens of books and articles, Dr. Woodson devoted his life to research and advancing the understanding of Black history among all people, but most especially, African Americans themselves. By promoting Negro History Week starting in 1926, Dr. Woodson sought to put Black history on the calendar in the same week as the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and Frederick Douglas, the Great Orator. (ASALH expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month in 1976.)

Woodson had to form his own publishing house, the Associated Publishers, because commercial publishers saw no possibility of profiting from printing and distributing books on Black history. As Woodson noted in “The Miseducation of the Negro” (1933), “Of the hundreds of Negro high schools recently examined by an expert in the United States Bureau of Education only eighteen offer a course taking up the history of the Negro, and in most of the Negro colleges and universities where the Negro is thought of, the race is studied only as a problem or dismissed as of little consequence.”

Woodson's Base In Shaw

Dr. Woodson was a Washingtonian for decades, living and working in and around what is now known as Shaw, the center of Black life in the Washington, DC metropolitan area at the time.  The Association’s earliest offices were in a now demolished building on U Street across the street from the Lincoln Theatre. Woodson purchased the building at 1538 Ninth Street, NW in 1922 as both his home and the offices of the Association and Associated Publishers. He served a principal of Armstrong Manual Training School on the 100 block of P Street, NW, today home to a charter school, and taught at the M Street High School, today’s Dunbar High School. Both schools were part of the segregated Colored division of the District of Columbia Public Schools. He was later a professor and dean at Howard University.

Dr. Woodson took many of his meals at the cafeteria in the basement of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, directly across Rhode Island Avenue from the park that bears his name. His funeral services were held at Shiloh Baptist Church, on the same block in Shaw where he lived and worked.

Shaw neighborhood elders tell of seeing Dr. Woodson when they were children, walking on the street carrying piles of books, perhaps making deliveries of volumes published by the Associated Publishers or taking them to the post office. They nicknamed him “The Book Man,” and also recall that the scholar always had candies in his pockets for them.

The Woodson Home National Historic Site, incorporating Dr. Woodson’s home and office and two adjacent row houses, was established in 2006 by the National Park Service after authorizing legislation was signed by President George W. Bush in 2003 and acquiring the building from ASALH. The site is currently in the first phase of construction and renovation, which will allow the public to begin touring the home this year.

Don’t let Dr. Woodson’s stern look put you off. Sculptor Kaskey captured the intensity of a man who spent his life dedicated to a cause, often without taking a salary, a man who overcame great obstacles to achieve what he is known worldwide for accomplishing. You’d expect a man like that to sport a serious mien.  If you were to ask Dr. Woodson about the role of the historian and the value of history, he might well answer with quotations like these three from other authors on these subjects, which he included in “The Story of the Negro Retold”: “The historian is the prophet looking backward.” The Spaniard Cervantes’ words, “History is the depository of great actions, the witness of what is past, the example and the instructor of the present and the monitor to the future.” And the quote carved in the blocks at the top of the back of the monument: “Truth comes to us from the past, like gold washed down from the mountains.”

Borrow one of Dr. Woodson’s books from the library before you visit. Read his words while you contemplate his visage as he gazes west towards Logan Circle. Let his words ring in your head. And before you depart, be sure to look him in the eyes and say, “Thank You, Dr. Woodson.”

The Woodson Memorial is dramatically lit at night. Photo: Alexander M. Padro.
Visitors are drawn to sit next to Dr. Woodson’s statue. Photo: Pleasant P. Mann.

Alexander M. Padro is an eight-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner representing the Shaw neighborhood and executive director of Shaw Main Streets.