Today is the beginning of Black History Month, which was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week. The question of whether this month should be set aside in recognition of African American history was recently addressed by actor Morgan Freeman on a recent episode of 60 Minutes. Freeman stressed his opposition to the holiday on the grounds that it created an artificial distinction between black history and American history. I agree with Freeman. That said, regardless of the appropriateness of the holiday it is essential that we step back to acknowledge why Woodson believed it was necessary in 1926. Using a textbook by Eric Foner means that my students are reading the most up-to-date account of how historians, including Foner, have interpreted the Reconstruction period. To give them a sense of how historians have evolved in their understanding of this controversial period I’ve been reading passages from W.E.B. Dubois’s phenomenal study, Black Reconstruction. Yes, he probably goes a bit too far applying Marxist categories, but it is the most complete study of how African Americans shaped their history by engaging in political action in one of the most dangerous settings imaginable. The final chapter is titled, “The Propaganda Of History.” Dubois asks: “What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? ” From the textbooks he references:
1. “The Negroes got control of these states. They had been slaves all their lives, and were so ignorant they did not know the letters of the alphabet. Yet many now sat in the state legislatures and made the laws.”
2. “In the South, the Negroes who had so suddenly gained their freedom did not know what to do with it.”
3. “Some legislatures were made up of a few dishonest white men and several Negroes, many too ignorant to know anything about law-making.”
4. “These men knew not only nothing about the government, but also cared for nothing except what they could gain for themselves.”
5. “Legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink, and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.”
One of my students asked who authored these various passages. My response: “Some of the brightest historical minds that this country has ever produced.” Let’s have the debate about the appropriateness of Black History Month, but let us not forget the history that it sought to address.