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Carter G. Woodson’s Black History Month Organization Is On The Rebound

As the Association for the Study of African American Life and History headed into Black History Month, its senior management told Diverse that the most important factor in the association’s ability to teach history was its ability to learn basic economics.

“The organization could not have been turned around without basic fiscal reform, like getting the financial records in order and developing a basic accounting system,” says association president, Dr. John Fleming. “In bad years, the annual conference lost $50,000 to $120,000. But we recently received a $1.5 million grant from Wachovia, and in 2006 we had a balanced budget and a growing paid membership of over 2000.”

It’s a far cry from the 1990s, when the association that Carter G. Woodson founded in 1915 was on the edge of bankruptcy. The paid membership was down to about 500 members and Woodson’s home at 1538 9th St. NW in Washington, D.C., was in need of maintenance. The association’s headquarters, also in the nation’s capital, was in such disrepair that the association was forced to clean out the building and sell it in 1999.

“Some neighbors actually cried when they saw the stacks of old books and journals being thrown into the dumpster,” says Dr. Daryl Scott, who is chairman of Howard University’s history department and head of ASALH’s publications committee. “There were multiple copies of those documents in libraries across the country so it wasn’t really a loss of important historical materials, but of a local symbol of Black pride.”

Ironically, as ASALH stood at the brink of bankruptcy, it’s greatest accomplishment, Black History Month, exploded in popularity. It is now observed in almost every school and community across the nation. And the number of Black history scholars, who make up the majority of the organization’s members, has been expanding.

But the association was unable to take advantage of those developments. During his lifetime, Woodson fought to keep ASALH independent of any particular college or university. But now the organization is only alive because of the assistance of historically Black colleges and universities. It’s publication, The Journal of African American Life and History, founded in 1916, failed to meet many deadlines and eventually stopped publishing. But it was revived by Dillard University professor and ASALH member V.P. Franklin. Today, the Journal operates out of a crowded office provided by Howard.

“ASALH has a long history and an important franchise of being the official body that sets the theme of Black History Month, but bringing it back required taking a long hard look at restructuring,” says the organization’s executive director, Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton. “The executive council struggled with basic management questions such as making personnel changes, seeking corporate support and improving our ability to sell Black history materials over the Internet. One of the biggest changes was adding businesspeople to the board, which had traditionally consisted of historians and academics.”

In reviving itself, ASALH adopted a strategy used by another Black institution headquartered in Washington — the National Council of Negro Women, which was founded by Woodson’s friend and collaborator, Mary McLeod Bethune. In recent years, NCNW has made a name for itself as the official sponsor of the popular “Black Family Reunion.” In 1995, the group moved into an impressive new building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The upgrade was made possible in part by NCNW’s decision to sell its old headquarter, which had once been Bethune’s personal residence. The National Park Service bought the house and is maintaining it as a national historic site. As such, the government absorbs the cost of preserving the structure, managing the flow of visitors and communicating its significance to the public.

ASALH properties will house NPS offices, but neighborhood office space will be made available to ASALH to preserve the tie between the house and the organization. 

Dr. Michael L. Blakey of the College of William and Mary was the anthropologist who headed much of the research for the NPS’s African Burial Ground Project in New York City. He cautions that ASALH may face some difficult challenges in its relationship to the Park Service. “It’s appropriate that they manage historic properties and monuments,” he says, but “there always has to be some process where agencies that operate Black sites remain accountable to the Black community. The Park Service has become much more sophisticated about African-American topics, but it took us years to work out an intellectually respectable interpretation of the Burial Ground.”

ASALH’s management is confident that it will have a productive relationship with the NPS. And they say that rebuilding the organization dedicated to Black history is much more important than maintaining direct ownership of the historic house.

“Our greatest jewel isn’t Woodson’s house or the office, but the journal he published and the organization he built,” says Fleming, “We don’t know that Black studies won’t be just a temporary trend in academia, so we’re revitalizing ASALH to help guarantee that we always have an independent organization that can conduct whatever research Black America needs.”

–Paul Ruffins

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