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Rejuvenated ASALH Gearing Up for Centennial Commemoration

Sylvia Cyrus took over as ASALH as executive director in 2003.Sylvia Cyrus took over as ASALH as executive director in 2003.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) continues to thrive a century after Dr. Carter G. Woodson and others founded the organization to educate Blacks about their history.

A sure sign of its growth is evidenced in the more than 1,500 participants who will travel to Atlanta later this month to commemorate the association’s centennial during a four-day annual meeting and conference that will include panel discussions and feature prominent Black historians, politicians and artists.

From its inception as The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,  Woodson — who was the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University — was quite intentional about creating a space for both academics and non-academics to gather and learn Black history from each other.

Though the association is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and its current president, Dr. Daryl Scott, is a professor of history at Howard University, individuals outside of the academy have long played an important role in pushing the association forward.

The rise of Black studies “brought us closer to the academy,” said Scott, adding that, unlike other organizations, ASALH is not a professional association. “We have this enormous reach,” Scott said in an interview with Diverse. “Our job is to promote Black history.”

The creation of the Journal of Negro History — now known as the Journal of African American History — by Woodson in 1915 was wildly popular on college campuses, particularly in the years after the formation of Black studies on college campuses.

But outside of the academy, ASALH branches in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Martha’s Vineyard have been active for years, often operating out of churches and community centers and funded by local members. When Woodson called for the establishment of Negro History Week, it was the local branches that carried out that mandate. In recent years, new branches have recently been chartered in Memphis and Detroit.

“We often talk about academics all the time, but the association means a lot to a lot of people, whether they are academics or not,” said Scott, who has been on the association’s board for the past 13 years. “We existed outside of the academy before there was Black history in the academy.”

When Sylvia Cyrus arrived at ASALH as executive director in 2003, she inherited an organization with declining membership and programs that had “withered on the vine a bit.” Corporate funding that had helped to sustain the association in the 1960s and 1970s had dried up, and the leadership had to find new ways to stay alive.

“It’s been a phenomenal growth,” said Cyrus. “As with any organization that gets to be 100 years, we have had some really good times and some really challenging times.”

Today, the interest in ASALH, particularly among young people, is encouraging. The organization’s annual luncheon in February is one of the largest and most popular events held across the country during Black History Month.

“I’ve been able to witness over the years, people coming into the association and I’ve watched their careers grow with the association’s rebirth,” said Scott. “I’ve watched graduate students become tenured professors. I saw people come in with no books, who now have two books.”

Scott said that the uniqueness of the association is that it means something different for each of its members.

“The ASALH you know depends on the door you came in through,” Scott said. “We are a lot of different things to different people.”

Organizers said that, at this year’s conference, there will be more than 200 panels, three Black History Month tours and a film festival that will be open to the entire community.

“This is more than just academics at the front of the room reading papers,” said Cyrus.

Susan Taylor and Harry Belafonte are honorary co-chairs of this year’s conference. Ambassador and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young will be among the participants. The Woodson Scholars Medallion will be presented to Dr. David Levering Lewis at the association’s gala. The John Hope Franklin award will be given to Rep. John Lewis.

Franklin’s son, John W. Franklin, who is the director of partnerships and international programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, will present the award to Lewis.

According to Franklin, his father — who penned more than a dozen books including From Slavery to Freedom ― first met Woodson in 1937 during his years as a graduate student and was a member of the association from 1936 until 2007.

“Growing up, I would always hear Dad talking about what was happening in the Association,” said Franklin, who has been a member since 2007. “It’s a marvelous mixture of historians and lay historians who are passionate about Black history.”

Other participants at this year’s conference include poet Sonia Sanchez, historians Dr. Lonnie Bunch and John H. Bracey Jr. Dr. Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies and dean of social science at Columbia University, will lead a panel discussion on the future of the field of Black women’s studies.

For more information and to register, please click here.

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.

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