Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sylvia Cyrus, executive director, ASALH. (Photo by Rob Roberts)
Noted historian John Hope Franklin once wrote, in documenting the accomplishments of Blacks in America, that White historians had “blandly asserted that the Negro had never developed a civilization of his own, vigorously argued that the Negro possessed childlike traits, and claimed with conviction that the Negro’s history supported the view that the best role for him was one of subordination . . . Carter G. Woodson was especially well-qualified to meet the urgent need for an historian of the Negro people.”
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) – Woodson’s brainchild and labor of love – is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. As part of the event, the group’s Centennial Founders Day Celebration paid homage to Woodson and the enduring legacy of his work. Held at the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest on Sept. 9, the celebration acknowledged “Rays of Light” – community elders whose lives and careers were positively impacted by Woodson’s work.
“A century after Carter G. Woodson established ASALH, few can deny the centrality of African Americans in the making of American history. While Dr. Woodson labored with singularity and purpose he did not work alone,” said Dr. Robert Harris, who along with his wife, fellow historian and scholar Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, introduced ASALH’s Rays of Light. “His co-workers at the Association were many, ranging from college presidents and government officials, to self-made poets and philosophers, to everyday folks in cities and rural areas.”
Noting ASALH’s 1915 birth coincided with the celebrated release of D.W Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, which cast the Black existence in America as one of animalistic and brute savagery tamed only through Ku Klux Klan intervention, Harris discussed the necessity of the organization.
“I regard it as a special honor that ASALH asked me to speak on this occasion because this country is only 239 years old, and ASALH is now 100 years old, which means ASALH has been around for almost half the life of this nation,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who served as guest speaker. “There are very few organizations that can sustain themselves for that length of time, but ASALH understood that it carried and sustained the very life of our people.
“What we needed was an entire organization to help correct the record about who Black people were in this country and Carter G. Woodson institutionalized his scholarship and with African-American history. As a third-generation Washingtonian, I remember being a little girl in this segregated city and reading about Negro History Week and Negro History Month. I was reading about Black history in books that Dr. Woodson produced in his home – that little narrow home by himself. ASALH is continuing that legacy.”
In honor of this milestone, ASALH has selected “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture” as the 2015 National Black History theme, and expects more than 1,500 participants at its annual conference in Atlanta later this month.
John Hope Franklin’s son, John W. Franklin, the director of partnerships and international programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said his father – who penned more than a dozen books including “From Slavery to Freedom” – first met Woodson in 1937 during his years as a graduate student and was a member of the association from 1936 until 2007.
“Growing up, I would always hear Dad talking about what was happening in the association,” said Franklin, who has been a member since 2007. “It’s a marvelous mixture of historians and lay historians who are passionate about Black history.”