The building that houses my public charter high school on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast D.C. is named for the man who launched what we celebrate today as Black History Month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson launched what was then an African-American history week, beginning with the February birthday of Frederick Douglass, and ending with the February birthday of Abraham Lincoln.
An accomplished historian and author, Dr. Woodson also was the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Today, he is known as the “Father of African-American History.” A pioneering scholar in this field, he realized the huge importance of African-Americans having an awareness and knowledge of their contributions to humanity.
Woodson was born 100 miles south of our Friendship Collegiate Academy campus, in New Canton, Va., the son of former slaves. His father moved the family to Huntington, W.Va., when he heard that a high school for African Americans was being built there.
Poverty and discrimination meant that Woodson could not regularly attend school to take advantage of this rare educational opportunity. Nonetheless, he mastered his school subjects before it became financially necessary for him to work in West Virginia’s Fayette County as a miner. This was despite the fact that he was only able to attend to his schooling for a few months each year.
Aged 20, Woodson entered Douglass High School and received his high school diploma in less than two years. He taught in Fayette County for a further three years, before being appointed principal of Douglass High School. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky.
A string of academic accomplishments followed Woodson’s college graduation. After a spell as a school supervisor in the Philippines, Woodson attended the University of Chicago, where he received his master’s of arts degree in 1908. He went on to complete his doctorate in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was only the second African American to earn a doctorate. While researching his doctoral dissertation, Woodson taught at a high school in the District and, after receiving his Ph.D, joined the faculty at Howard University.
Woodson founded what today is called the Journal of African American History. Through this initiative, as well as his tireless work researching the neglected history of African Americans, and the role of African Americans in American history in his many scholarly works, he replaced myth and misinformation with the organized academic study of the African-American experience.
In his determination to document the history of African Americans, he noted with sadness how African American contributions too often “were overlooked, ignored and suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who used them.” The connection to him between this and racial prejudice was obvious.
At our charter high school in Northeast Washington, Carter Woodson’s life and work provide inspiration to students and teachers alike. Three in four of our students are growing up in families who live on low incomes. We aim to ensure that each of our students graduate from high school and complete a college degree. Many take academically rigorous Advanced Placement courses. With 95 percent of our students graduating, and 100 percent of our graduates accepted to college, we are well on our way to achieving our vision. And we are far ahead of the city’s traditional public school system.
Last week, the District’s Mayor Vincent Gray introduced five of our students who are newly named recipients of Posse Scholarships, a four-year full-tuition prize worth up to $140,000 per student over the course of their undergraduate education. Friendship Collegiate Academy had more students who earned these prestigious scholarships than any school in the Washington metropolitan region. This year’s award winners are heading to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Bucknell and Pepperdine Universities and Lafayette College—three with grade point averages of 3.98. A further student graduating this year is headed to Columbia with a 4.1 GPA.
True to Dr. Woodson’s teaching, Friendship’s Collegiate Academy aims to transform the historically disadvantaged neighborhoods of our city by helping our young people to change their lives and take charge of their future. So far this year, the Class of 2011 has won over $7 million in scholarships and grants: 129 scholarships in all. In 10 years, Friendship’s Collegiate Academy has graduated 299 D.C. Achievers Scholars, 19 Posse Scholars and one Gates Millennium Scholar: $18 million in scholarship awards in three years—an achievement that is worthy of the man after whom our school’s building is named.
Donald Hense is chairman of Friendship Public Charter School, which runs six charter schools, pre-K through 12th grade, in the District of Columbia as well as Anacostia High School in partnership with D.C. Public Schools and three “transformation” schools in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools.