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Woodson Institute leaders emphasize importance of celebrating Black history beyond February

The institute was named for Virginian scholar Carter G. Woodson, whose work served as the foundation for Black History Month

Woodson Institute leaders describe Black History Month as “liberatory” for all people.
Woodson Institute leaders describe Black History Month as “liberatory” for all people.

Black History Month, a time of pride, celebration and remembrance during the month of February, was first recognized in the U.S. in 1976 under former president Gerald R. Ford. It began as a way to commemorate efforts of the African diaspora, and was developed from the efforts of Carter G. Woodson — a Virginian scholar who sought to dedicate a week in February to the coordinated teaching of Black history in public schools. 

Woodson, who is known as a father of Black history, was the second Black American to receive a doctorate at Harvard following W.E.B. DuBois. Cognizant of the lack of historical or academic attention to Black history, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and the Journal of African American History in 1916, in addition to publishing his own books on Black history. 

Woodson is also the namesake of the University’s Carter G. Woodson Institute, founded in 1981. Since its founding, the Woodson Institute has supported the goal of promoting both the research and teaching of African American studies at the University. In addition to establishing an African American Studies Research Center, the institute is responsible for administering undergraduate major and minor degrees in African American and American Studies. 

Deborah McDowell, previous director and chair of the Woodson Institute, led the institute from 2008 to 2021. Under McDowell’s leadership, the Woodson Institute became a full-fledged department — previously, it was recognized solely as an academic program. The change in status allowed the institute to hire and to expand its faculty directly, and garnered attention as a wider academic and intellectual landscape.

Courses in the African American studies department at the University include Music, Politics and Social Movements and Peoples and Cultures of Africa, among others. Students may also take courses in the Swahili, American Studies, Drama, English, History, Religion and Sociology departments to satisfy major or minor requirements in African American Studies or to learn more about the field.

The institute also offers a Distinguished Majors Program for fourth-year students, through which majors in African American and American studies conduct advanced research for the completion of a thesis, and has sponsored over 125 pre and post-doctoral students through its residential fellowship program.

Recent Woodson faculty publications explore topics such as popular music and Black Atlantic Humanism. The Woodson Institute also holds events to discuss books, films and current issues. The most recent event last year featured a roundtable discussion of Jarvis R. Givens’ book “Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching,” which featured panelists from University of Southern California and Michigan State University.

Mahaliah Little, post-doctoral fellow at the Woodson Institute and American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellow at Ohio State University, commented on how special it has been for her to be a part of the Woodson Institute, especially while celebrating Black History Month. 

“I grew up in a very pro-Black family and community and attended an [Historically Black College or University] for undergrad, so being a part of the Woodson is like coming home in a way,” Little said. “I cherish opportunities to be part of historically Black institutions, and the legacy of Carter G. Woodson and the diversity of Black thought is alive at the Woodson [Institute].”

In addition to attaining departmental status, the Woodson Institute under McDowell also restarted its publishing imprint with U.Va. Press through the series “Carter G. Woodson Institute Series: Black Studies at Work in the World.” The series is a collection of monographs and essays, and intends to aid transformative work in the classroom by providing resources to educators. McDowell also serves as the current editor of the imprint.

McDowell’s efforts continue with Robert Trent Vinson, director and chair of the Woodson Institute, who took over from McDowell last August. Vinson is the current president of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora — the world’s premier professional organization of African and African diaspora scholars — which refers to scholars who study the voluntary and involuntary movement of Africans to various parts of the world. He is also a former Woodson fellow, a two-year pre or post-doctoral program in which scholars study topics in African-American and African studies and related fields. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Vinson said Black History Month is a moment for all students and faculty to celebrate and partake in. 

“[Black History Month] is not just a moment for Black people — the understanding of Black history is really important for the nation’s history,” Vinson said. “Studying Black history as a Black freedom struggle, as an attempt … for this country to live up to its ideals, is liberatory for many people beyond just Black people, including those who are doing the oppressing.”

In 2021, events celebrating Black History Month at the University included a virtual week-long celebration by the National Pan-Hellenic Council and a series of events by the Office of African American Affairs. The series highlighted 28 prominent figures from Black Bottom, Detroit, based on Alice Randall’s novel “Black Bottom Saints.” Students and faculty had the opportunity to examine relevant books, films and music through discussions, viewings and guest speakers. 

This year, the Black Student Alliance is hosting a “Black History at U.Va.” event each Friday in February. The first week will focus on “the foundation,” honoring the enslaved laborers who built and upheld the University. The second week will address “the firsts,” or specific accomplishments within the Black community. The final two weeks will feature Black professors, deans and students who have impacted a peer’s experience at the University or who served as leaders within the Black community. 

U.Va. Wise’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Department of History and Philosophy will also host a series of events to explore the Southwest Virginia African American experience. The series will consist of five lectures which will discuss the African American experience in Appalachia.

Vinson explained the importance of a universal celebration of Black history.

“I think Black history is for everyone; that includes those who have been privileged since the beginning of this nation's founding, because those spaces around racial exclusion not only diminishes and harms the peoples who are being affected, it also diminishes those people who are doing the excluding, doing the oppression, because it diminishes their humanity, as well,” Vinson said.

Those interested in learning more about Black History Month can explore resources on the Center for Racial Justice in Education and Black History Month websites.

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