Did you know that the Father of Black History was a Berea College graduate? Carter G. Woodson earned his degree in 1903 and went on to become the second African American (after W. E. B. Du Bois) to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Woodson later joined the faculty of Howard University, where he founded the discipline of African American Studies. In 1926, Woodson announced the observance of Negro History Week, choosing February because it was the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Schools across the country responded with enthusiasm, so that the commemoration was sustained on an annual basis and has subsequently evolved into Black History Month!
Earlier this month, the Richmond Register ran an article about Monk Estill, one of the first enslaved African Americans in Kentucky, who eventually received his freedom because of his heroic contributions to the defense of Fort Boonesborough. Woodson and Estill and many other Black leaders contributed importantly to Kentucky’s history, but few are aware of their contributions. Including their stories in the Commonwealth’s classrooms would tell a more complete history of Kentucky.
To remedy omissions of Black History from education in our state, Berea College is entering into an association with Kentucky History Resources LLC, Kentucky State University, and the Muhammad Ali Center. This Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky will gather and organize the social, historical and cultural contributions of Black Kentuckians, making these resources available through the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, on Berea College’s campus.
A more inclusive history of our state includes both positive and negative elements. Yes, Black history in Kentucky is about slavery, the Civil War and segregation, but it also includes the triumphs and important contributions of Black Kentuckians like Estill and Woodson, Black women leaders like Georgia Davis Powers and Mae Street Kidd, both of whom were key Kentucky legislators during and after the Civil Rights movement, and the important efforts in support of racial equality and justice of white leaders born in Kentucky like Abraham Lincoln, Justice John Marshall Harlan and Rev. John G. Fee, founder of Berea College. The Black civil rights struggle in Kentucky and across the nation has inspired and guided many others seeking equality, including women, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.
The Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky will partner with educators to develop scholarly reviewed, age-appropriate materials that teach the experiences of all Kentuckians thus adding to our shared understanding of a resource we hold in common, the history of our Commonwealth. The association aims to equip teachers at the primary, secondary and higher-education levels with essential original sources, carefully designed lesson plans, and other tools to present a more complete, even-handed and inclusive history of Kentucky.
This is necessary so that students may learn, grow and face current issues in their appropriate historical context. Some of those lessons will be inspiring, and others, indeed, may be uncomfortable, but all are vital to educating citizens who will seek a just society and avoid history’s mistakes. Such lessons will prove to be unifying and constructive rather than “divisive.” They will benefit students of all races by sharing important, untold histories, thus contributing to a more complete, accurate, and fact-based understanding of our Commonwealth and nation.
As the South’s first interracial college, Berea has always been at the forefront of social justice and interracial education, and our participation in this effort is just the latest iteration of our historic commitment to educating “all peoples of the earth.” In doing so, we honor Woodson’s legacy, who emphasized that Black history was for everybody.