On the evening of Jan. 10, 1986, more than 600 people packed into Shiloh Family Life Center in Northwest Washington to give away money. It was a Friday, but the audience that packed the center had passed on the traditional weekend partying in favor of a rescue mission. The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), which for years had been America’s premier caretaker of black history, was on its way to a messy, ignoble death.
Although ASALH was not exactly a household word, the name of its founder, Carter G.Woodson, was. And so were the accolades the association had earned. During the first half of the 20th century, it was ASALH that had relentlessly pushed to make black history a respectable phrase. It was ASALH that had established Negro History Week and, later, Black History Month. It was ASALH, through its publication of the Negro History Bulletin, that had popularized the teaching of black history in public schools.
And in the days when most academic journals refused to publish the works of black scholars, it was ASALH that had founded the Journal of Negro History.
All of that may have meant something to the intellectuals, but it didn’t help the association with the tax man. ASALH owed nearly $60,000 in back property and payroll taxes. Authorities were set to auction off the association’s headquarters, as well as Woodson’s home, which he had left to the organization upon his death in 1950.
Faced with such large arrears, ASALH’s executive council had hastily organized a fundraising drive to save the venerable organization. The effort culminated with the gathering at Shiloh, hosted by Radio One owner Kathy Hughes and radio personality Donnie Simpson. In just one night, ASALH raised over $20,000. The audience members were so eager to give money that when the count reached $15,000 and Simpson joked that the audience should give until it reached $20,000, the crowd did just that.
In all, ASALH raised more than $40,000 in three weeks, with 90 percent of the money coming from donors in the Washington area. The money proved enough to avert a tax sale. Out of danger, ASALH’s executive council hastily vowed never to tie itself to the tracks again. Within a month, the group installed new leaders and persuaded then-Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford to introduce legislation to eliminate the group’s tax debt. ASALH seemed poised to make a comeback.
But the comeback never happened. Thirteen years after ASALH’s tax debacle, the group remains barely a shadow of its former self. The association’s crumbling headquarters scarcely resembles a home office for America’s most accomplished black historical outfit. The Journal of Negro History is published irregularly and is virtually ignored by top-flight historians of the African-American experience. The publishing company Woodson founded and left to ASALH is defunct. And the organization itself continues to struggle financially.
Perhaps most importantly, ASALH has yet to define for itself a post-integration agenda, instead drifting along with a mishmash of scholarly topics and an utter lack of identifying mission. Much like the people whose history it was founded to protect, ASALH is struggling.
During Carter Woodson’s day, the neighborhood around his 9th Street NW house was the thriving home of Washington’s black bourgeoisie. Several of Howard University’s faculty lived on the block. Woodson himself did a brief stint at the school in 1919, as dean of the College of Liberal Arts. These days, some of the houses on the block are boarded up, and a graffiti artist has blessed several of the doorways with his tag, “Halos.”
At 1538 9th St., pedestrians are more likely to notice the tag than they are the plaque that sits to its left, which reads, “The Carter G. Woodson House has been designated a historical landmark.” It looks more like a landmark of urban blight than the former workplace of a 20th-century intellectual titan. The door to the Woodson home is boarded shut, the windows secured with bars.
Woodson was born in 1875 in Buckingham, Va., to parents just a decade removed from slavery. His family was large and so poor that Woodson could not afford to go to school. Yet he doggedly pursued an education. After the family relocated to Huntington, W.Va., he divided his days between coal mining and high school. By the time Woodson came to the District in 1909, he had studied at the University of Chicago, spent a semester at the Sorbonne, and served as superintendent of schools in the U.S.-colonized Philippine Islands. He would also soon earn his Ph.D. from Harvard.
In 1915, the same year that D.W. Griffith’s racist film Birth of a Nation premiered, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. (In 1972 the group changed its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.) He borrowed $400 against a $2,000 life insurance policy to pay for the first issue of the Journal of Negro History, which soon became the pre-eminent scholarly venue for black historians to publish their work. According to Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., it ranked “with the best learned periodicals of the country.”
For the remaining 35 years of his life, Woodson worked constantly to further his organization. He never married, never had kids, and, by all accounts, had no social life. “He had the reputation of being a silent taskmaster who had a quiet fanaticism,” says Russell Adams, who heads Howard’s Afro-American Studies Department. The organization was never a moneymaker, but Woodson sustained it for 35 years through a mix of fickle white philanthropy and sheer will.
And despite its meager budget, Woodson’s organization constantly expanded. In 1920, it founded Associated Publishers to put out historical works about the black experience. In 1937, Woodson set up the Negro History Bulletin, which he published during the school months and sent to teachers as an aid for teaching black history.
“Woodson popularized the social power of history,” says his biographer, Jacqueline Goggin. That trend eventually extended to such non-ivory-tower innovations as Negro History Week, established when Woodson got several school districts to set aside a week in February for black history.
For all of his organization’s successes, however, Woodson’s prominenceafter his death in 1950became an Achilles heel. He had groomed no clear successor. During the couple of decades after he died, ASALH was still able to attract high-caliber leaders such as Howard professors Rayford Logan and Charles Wesley. But none had Woodson’s skill at keeping the organization on the cutting edge. And after Woodson’s goal of scholarly recognition for black history was achieved, the organization found itself without a concrete agenda. “For a while it coasted off the energy [Woodson] had given,” says Adams. “But the action got to be faster than ASALH was moving.”
By the mid-’70s, black historians were joining mainstream groups and depleting ASALH’s ranks. By the ’80s, The Journal of Negro History’s scholarly reputation was also declining, as more and more black historians took their work elsewhere. Though black history was becoming a legitimate field of academic study nationally, ASALH was fast becoming little more than a skeleton organization, held together by an annual conference and a few irregular periodicals.
Most of the ardent defenders of ASALH do not dispute the fact that the group has taken a tumble. In the ’70s, as integration gradually set in, black scholars joined other historical organizations and began publishing their work elsewhere. “When I came in ’68, the association was pretty much central,” says Janette Hoston Harris, a member of ASALH’s executive council. “[Black historians] looked to us for guidance….They looked to us for a message….Now [African-American studies are] so diversified.”
Like many black institutions that thrived during segregation, ASALH was crippled by what Columbia University history professor Manning Marable, a scholar of black intellectual life, calls “the paradox of desegregation.” The paradox particularly applies to ASALH. “Black institutions were established to fight for integration, which spelled the end of their dominance,” says Marable.
ASALH’s headquarters, at 1407 P St. NW, is symbolic of the tumble. The white paint is peeling, and an ancient sign announcing the association’s presence in the building is fading. A filthy white-and-green awning hangs over the gated doorway, and to the right of a hand-painted sign reading “ASALH,” another glittering sign announces the organization’s neighbor: “Checks cashed Any Kind No ID.”
Outgoing President Edward Beasley says that while integration in academia has been a challenge, ASALH is still central to the field of black history. “You have black scholars scattered everywhere,” says Beasley. “But there’s always the knowledge that we are the cornerstone of African-American history.”
Membership numbers show otherwise. Outgoing Vice President Walter B. Hill Jr. says ASALH’s membership numbers a meager 1,200. And he says the journal’s circulation is even smaller.
Adams and other critics argue that it has been ASALH’s ruling powers, not the forces of social change, that have destroyed the organization. Adams says he’s “embarrassed” by arguments that blame integration for the group’s decline, calling them “superficial and misleading” analyses. “There are 800 professors at Howard,” he says. “Four hundred of them are in the social sciences….It’s not that everyone went somewhere; it’s that the association couldn’t keep up.”
ASALH life member Esme Bhan, a research librarian who joined in the early ’80s, agrees that the association should look in the mirror before blaming integration for its woes. “I don’t think you can rule [desegregation] out,” says Bhan. “But if the association had kept its agenda, it would have at least enjoyed symbolic respect. But there isn’t even a token respect.”
Even Hill disputes the notion that integration is the main culprit. “The association didn’t do a very good job of keeping scholars,”says Hill. “There are a lot of young scholars who don’t know the association is still around.”
And those scholars who do know details about ASALH are mostly unhappy with what they see. Adams blames poor leadership for the association’s decline, contending that it has more to do with the “dynamics of cronyism” than integration. According to Adams, previous executive directors with an eye on executive perks spent “lavishly, to the point of me feeling uncomfortable knowing the history of their funding.”
Harris, who also served as president from 1993 to 1995, maintains that ASALH is the victim of forces beyond its control. Harris says foundations have been less than forthcoming with grant monies for the association. She argues that ASALH has been effectively managed and that any mismanagement is the result of a lack of funding. “We’ve never had a poor executive director,” says Harris. “There have been good executive directors and marginal executive directors…but you get what you pay for.”
The poverty argument, however, doesn’t explain why ASALH’s annual conference, once a major affair for black intellectuals, has become a yearly scholarly nonevent. A former employee who still writes on black history says the confab has plenty of money, but too much of it is spent putting on a big show. “The convention is a parody,” says the former intern. “They have a brunch every day.”
Not much, on the other hand, goes into the actual presentations. Bhan says the lack of intellectually challenging panels at ASALH’s conferences has done as much as integration to deplete the group’s membership. “There’s nothing intellectually challenging for [black scholars]….They’re not going to come to see what’s happening in the local libraries,” says Bhan, noting that she once heard a scholar call the conference “a big yawn.”
When it comes to the journal, that yawn turns into a blank stare. Hill acknowledges that in past years, the purported quarterly has come out far less regularly. And the former employee says its impact is even less consistent: “People don’t cite articles from the publication, and if they do they’re very old ones.”
Adams says the decline in the journal is one of the biggest reasons black academics have shied away from writing for it. “The decline in the number of pages and the decline in the treatment of subjects has been notable,” says Adams. “It’s two-thirds smaller in some issues.” Hill says that the journal used to be a top-rate publication but has become a “backwater.”
Once ASALH had the advantage of being able to rally the troops against a racist version of history. Woodson and other black historians needed only take a cursory look through the local library to find inspiration.
But today’s historical landscape is not as littered with glaring stereotypes. ASALH may well have been unprepared for a day when feature films that condemn segregation get Oscar nominations, and books detailing the brutalities of slavery win Pulitzers. “I was in the office about a year ago and I was depressed,” say Adams. “[ASALH] comes off as tired and fatigued.” Ultimately, it’s fatigued because few folks at the institution have articulated black history as something more than the ongoing effort to counter the bad attitudes of white people.
Elsewhere, African-American studies departments at institutions such as Harvard and Columbia have turned a multifaceted study of the black experience into an intellectual gold mine. Sadly, Woodson’s organizational heirs, via mismanagement and an inability to cope with a more integratedbut still racially rivenAmerica, are missing out on that opportunity. There’s no promise that African-American Studies programs at Ivy League schools will always enjoy the current groundswell of support. As Woodson would have known, ASALH needs to be there when the bottom falls out.
“A. Philip Randolph said that freedom is never final,” says Robert L. Harris Jr., who was ASALH president from 1991 to 1993. “African-American history hasn’t been thoroughly integrated….Even if it was, we have to see that it continues.” CP