Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Talking About the Things That Aren't There

February is Black History Month, which means that it’s the time of year when museums around the United States take the opportunity to highlight objects in their collections that tell the story of black Americans. And every year at this time I think about how the Alice can mark the occasion when the collection doesn't seem to include much of relevance to African-American history. In tackling this question, it’s important to think about why the Alice’s collection looks the way it does, and use that knowledge to shape a more inclusive interpretation.

One of the American Wing’s period rooms,
depicting the home of a wealthy Philadelphian.
The Alice is very much the product of an approach to collecting that was typical in the early 20th century. Collecting antiques was largely the hobby of well-to-do Americans of northern European descent, and for the most part they were interested in acquiring the sort of items that would have been owned by their ancestors or people like them. They wanted to collect items that were examples of fine craftsmanship, and ideally objects that had some connection to people who had played an important role in the founding of the nation. This was also true of the museum collections of early American decorative arts that were being founded during this period, such as the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Wing’s curator, R. T. H. Halsey, wrote in 1925 that the period rooms were “representative of the homes of men—parsons, planters, mariners, merchants, and tradesmen—by whose efforts and sacrifices the Republic was made possible.”

Historians, curators, and collectors of the early 20th century generally had a fairly limited view of whose “efforts and sacrifices” were worth remembering. Working people and the poor rarely played a part in their accounts of the past. The existence of slavery was acknowledged but its significance was minimized. In some cases, authors felt that slavery was an embarrassing aberration that was best glossed over, while others upheld the view that it had been a benign and paternalistic institution. And it must be said that many white Americans simply didn’t think that black Americans had contributed much to the nation, nor did they think they really belonged as members of the national community. 

Dr. Carter G. Woodson
However, during this same period, African-American scholars and activists were working to educate the public about black history. They wanted black Americans to realize that they had a history, and that history was not wholly defined by the experience of slavery. They hoped to instill racial pride by emphasizing the economic, political, military, and cultural contributions of African-Americans. At the same time, they hoped that these messages would reach white Americans and help to counteract assumptions about black inferiority. They wanted everyone to understand that black Americans had a distinct history, but one that was also inseparable from US history.

One of the most important individuals in this movement—and the reason why we have Black History Month today—was Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875, the son of former slaves. Largely self-educated as a young man, he eventually completed a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912, becoming only the second African-American to earn a doctorate. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and became the editor of the Journal of Negro History. Woodson believed that prejudice was “the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” Education, then, would be key to bringing about social change.

Negro History Week Bulletin,
1946, with message from
President Truman
To this end, Woodson and the ASNLH established Negro History Week in 1926. They chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14), two days that had long been commemorated in the African-American community. Woodson and the Association set a theme for the celebration each year, and distributed materials: “pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people.” Originally the object of Negro History Week was to encourage the teaching of black history in public schools, but it soon spread further. The growing black middle class was particularly receptive to Woodson’s ideas, and black history clubs were formed in many communities.

By the 1940s, Negro History Week had expanded to the entire month of February in some localities, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s encouraged the trend in that direction. The official shift from Negro History Week to Black History Month came in 1976, as it was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as part of the Bicentennial commemoration.

Carter Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would eventually die out because it would become commonplace to teach black history as an integral part of US history. That hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly is true that Americans today are more aware of the importance of black history (witness the overwhelming response to the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture). And the more I thought about it, the more  I realized that since black history is so intertwined with broader US history, it shouldn’t really be that difficult to find it at the Alice—we just might have to look a little bit harder to find it. Over the next month, I’ll be telling some of these stories.


“Origins of Black History Month,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History

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