AFAM Environmental History & Black History Month Without Carter G. Woodson?

Carter G. Woodson

February is Black History Month. Carter G. Woodson, the father of African American history, started it all in 1926 with Negro History Week.

Woodson was strategic deciding on the second week of February between Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays for that special week devoted to African American history. Douglass was born enslaved in Talbot County, Maryland and knew the southern environmental landscape first hand, as a forced laborer without wages. The same was true for Woodson who was enslaved in Canton, Virginia in the same geographic region of Douglass’ birth place.

As for President Lincoln, he wasn’t the savior to those enslaved. African Americans of Woodson’s generation mythologized Lincoln through much of the twentieth century. Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union at any price during the Civil War. If freeing African Americans from enslavement helped so be it. If keeping African Americans enslaved bound the North and South together, that worked too. No matter your interpretation of history, whether through the lens of expediency or largesse, Lincoln was instrumental in changing how African Americans worked the land in the shift from enslavement to sharecropping, the latter into freedom.

In the midst of Black History Month 2012 . . . in this the second week of February in which Woodson marked Negro History Week . . . always remember Woodson was one of the first historians to write African American history. I owe a debt to him because his scholarship was a precursor of African American environmental history. Many of us owe a debt from historical and contemporary perspectives.

Carter G. Woodson, thank you for The Mis-Education of the Negro and A Century of Negro Migration.

One and all, have a joyous and educational 2012 Black History Month!

Black Heritage Month, Buffalo Soldiers, and Shelton Johnson

I will be a historian until the day I die. I can imagine reaching with my wavering hand stretched out for my computer so I can go look up something at the Library of Congress website. That’s why when Black Heritage Month comes in February, I perk up.

The celebration of African American accomplishments was launched by Carter G. Woodson, the granddaddy of African American history. He first named the annual celebration Negro History Week, which was later expanded to Black History Month. Many now call the month of February Black Heritage Month.

Gloryland by Shelton Johnson

I could go on and on about environmental (that would include technology, science and medicine in my mind) contributions by African Americans. I am inspired to share a few things in the month of February 2010.

The Buffalo soldiers first come to mind. I learned about them many years ago. I knew they were a branch of the U.S. military launched after the Civil War. I also knew of two stories of why Native Americans gave these African Americans the name  buffalo: Native Americans believed African Americans were fierce fighters and had curly hair much like the buffalo.

As for the environment, African American men in the military serving in the American West, crossed and worked on numerous landscapes from deserts to prairies after the Civil War. News of the publication of  Gloryland: A Novel by Shelton Johnson led me to look for more online in connection to the novel, which was revelatory. What I did not know was that Buffalo solders served as some of the first national park rangers in California!

Learn more about the Buffalo soldiers and Shelton Johnson:

President Barack Obama and Shelton Johnson

Shelton Johnson

Johnson has worked for the National Park Service since 1987 and is currently one of few African American park rangers at park ranger in Yosemite Park. He appeared in Ken Burn’s “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea,” a PBS documentary film. In 2009, Johnson’s  Gloryland: A Novel  was published by Sierra Club Books. It is the story of Elijah Yancy who was born on January 1, 1863 and traveled West in the early 1880’s. The novel is filled with environmental themes including rich descriptions of the landscape Yancy traversed across the country.