In the fall of 1870, a handful of students made their way through the northwest quadrant of the nation's capital, and through the doors of D.C.'s "Preparatory High School for Colored Youth," the country's first public high school for African American children. There, in the shadow of the American Civil War, and dawned with the spark of reconstruction, a converted basement-turned-classroom in the lower floor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church bore the seeds of Dunbar High School, which would become one of the country's preeminent institutions for African American educational achievement. The students and teachers who graced its hallways would be heard through the years in the halls of Congress, in the highest ranks of the U.S. Military, at the heart of our civil rights movement, and in the upper echelons of medical and scientific study.
One such voice was that of Carter G. Woodson; a journalist, author, historian, and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). It was through his work with the ASNLH that Woodson spearheaded the celebration of "Negro History Week" in America, which served as the precursor to Black History Month, which was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
The son of former slaves, Woodson grew up poor, and unable to attend school regularly. Still, he managed to master scholastic fundamentals on his own. After entering high school at the age of 20, he earned his degree in 2 years and continued on with an impressive academic career earning a bachelor's degree from Berea College in Kentucky, a post as a school supervisor in the Philippines for nearly five years, a master's degree in 1908 from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912.
After Harvard, Woodson moved to Washington, D.C. and joined the Dunbar High School staff, which at that point was called the "M Street School." He taught there for years until joining the faculty at Howard University, where he began teaching Howard's first ever black history courses.
Carter Woodson spent his career promoting the importance of black history as part of the American story, and in context of the birth and evolution of global civilizations. With the publication of The Journal of Negro History, the formation of the ASNLH, and the inception of Negro History Week, Woodson is often cited as the "father of black history," and one of the earliest champions of African American empowerment through historic learning.
Woodson taught us that, "those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."
It was his belief that a thorough and prideful understanding of our history as Americans, and a full grasp of the contributions of black people would provide us the foundation and vision we need to confidently contribute to society, and reach our full potential.
I was struck by Carter Woodson's story both as we observe Black History Month at the White House, and as I reflect on the tangential story of another Dunbar faithful. My father, Dr. James E. Bowman, who would be 91 years old today, attended Dunbar and graduated at the age of 16, decades after Mr. Woodson had moved on, and amidst another era of struggle and restructuring in America. He would later become a renowned pathologist and expert in genetics and inherited disease, as well as the first African American resident at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, and the first African American to receive tenure at the University of Chicago Division of Biological Sciences. Like Mr. Woodson, and so many others over the years, my dad broke down barriers throughout his life and career, and left us a world better than the one he found.
Today, Dunbar struggles against many of the same economic, social, family, and scholastic barriers to success that face so many schools in America, and which leave too many children fighting for the chance they deserve. But we can certainly learn from Carter Woodson, that we need only look to our past to understand our capacity for forging our own destiny in the face of unrelenting challenges. The strength of our future as a country, as always, lives in the hearts and minds of our young people, and I can think of no surer vessel in which to place our faith.
Carter G Woodson is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland-Silver Hill, MD, and his DC home is preserved as a National Historic Site.
Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls