The connection between the month of February and African American history is a well-established tradition throughout the country.
But few Washingtonians probably know that it had its start nearly a hundred years ago here in the District – at 1538 9th Street in Shaw, to be exact.
That’s where you’ll find the home and office of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History.”
In this unassuming row house, Woodson researched, wrote, and published some of the most important works of African American scholarship in the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Dr. Woodson was not only an historian, but a history maker himself. He was the second African American to earn a PhD at Harvard University (the first was W.E.B. Du Bois), and a pioneer in African American scholarship and education.
Woodson moved to Washington to complete his dissertation, doing his research at the Library of Congress while teaching at the District’s elite but segregated schools.
He bought the house on Ninth Street in 1915, and it became his home, office, and headquarters for the newly founded Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
Here he helped fill the void of serious scholarship on African American history, regularly publishing the Journal of Negro History, and volume upon volume of histories through his Associated Publishers. This included his landmark 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro.
In 1926, Woodson and his organization instituted Negro History Week to highlight the contributions of African Americans, choosing the week in February that fell between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
It became a focal point for promoting the study of African American history across the country, and he published the Negro History Bulletin to provide a wealth of new curriculum for teachers and students. His ultimate goal was to have this history studied not just for one week out of the year – but throughout the year, every year.
Fifty years later in February 1976, the commemoration that Woodson started became African American History Month – and the house where it all started became a National Historic Landmark.
Woodson lived upstairs until his death in 1950, and hosted countless scholars and luminaries in his downstairs study – from W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston to Langston Hughes. His office and basement archives became the repository for thousands of documents and artifacts on African American history, which eventually made their way into the Library of Congress along with Woodson’s own papers.
For an historian, Carter G. Woodson has rock star status. But for a house where so much history was made as well as written, it currently looks like a place that time’s forgotten.
It stands on a dilapidated corner that still shows the marks of Shaw’s decades-long deterioration, before its more recent gentrification.
In the 1970s, the headquarters of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) vacated the building and moved to Howard University. And as Shaw declined and was gripped by crime and drugs in the 1980s and 90s, the empty Woodson house fell into disrepair and became a haven for addicts.
The National Park Service bought the site from ASALH in 2005, and partnered with the organization to develop it into the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site. The NPS also bought the two adjoining properties from the historic Shiloh Baptist Church on Ninth Street, where Woodson himself worshipped.
The plan is to restore the home to its original condition and to build offices and visitor services next door, but there are still millions of dollars needed to finish the job.
And right now, the NPS is occupied with the basics of preservation – removing mold and asbestos from the main house, and propping up the adjoining building with steel beams to keep it from toppling over.
Clearly there’s a long way to go before scholars and tourists can walk through those doors and see the site as it looked while Woodson lived there.
But in the meantime, you can learn more about the Father of Black History at the Mary McLeod Bethune house near Logan Circle, which is serving as a temporary headquarters. It’s a fitting location, since Woodson and Bethune were both friends and collaborators throughout their lives.
And as Shaw continues its transformation, the restored Carter G. Woodson home will anchor this part of Ninth Street as the birthplace of African American history – not just in February, but throughout the year.