Who were the great black historians?


Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 99: Who were the key scholars responsible for the discipline of black history?

The 500-year story of the African-American people, as we tried to show in our PBS documentary series Many Rivers to Cross, is inseparable from that of America as a whole. Not that long ago, lest we forget, the prevailing opinion in this country was that black people had no history—at least not one worth writing about or teaching. To refute that charge, it took generations of pioneering historians to recover the pieces of our buried and scattered past and to mend them into narratives as amazing as any the world has known. What to some was a joke—a futile effort in frivolity—was to these scholars a life’s calling. And in pursuing the black historical past so brilliantly and passionately, they succeeded in placing the American historical profession on much higher ground, and inspiring African Americans—and, over time, the country as a whole—to demand that the promise of citizenship and civil rights be fulfilled for a people who had waited for both so very long—too long, in fact.

As I prepare to conclude The Root’s 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro series with my 100th column next week—a retrospective on our old friend Joel A. Rogers—I’d like to honor a few of the great black historians whose diligent work and careful scholarship made it impossible for anyone to deny that African-American history was, and has always been, a fundamental part of American history.

Two of those historians you’ve met in earlier columns: Carter G. Woodson, “the father of Black History Month,” and George Washington Williams, “black America’s first investigative journalist.” The great W.E.B. Du Bois—the first black person in the world to earn a Ph.D. in history—has hovered over this entire series—as he does over African-American history as a whole. Permit me then to introduce you to five more academically trained black historians, with doctorates from accredited institutions you should know, whose books you should read and upon whose shoulders all scholars of African-American studies stand: Rayford W. Logan, Charles H. Wesley, Dorothy Porter Wesley, John Hope Franklin and John W. Blassingame Sr.

If ever a Mount Rushmore for black historians were to be carved on the face of a mountain, you can bet the eight faces I just mentioned would be on it.

1. Rayford W. Logan (1897-1982)

Born a year after Plessy v. Ferguson’s infamous “separate but equal” decree, Rayford Whittingham Logan was steeled as a child by stories about his free black lineage before the Civil War. His father toiled as a butler in the home of a prominent white family in Washington, D.C., that took an interest in Rayford’s education. After graduating first in his class from Dunbar High School in 1913, Logan attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where, four years later, he emerged a member of Phi Beta Kappa, ready to defend his country in the Great War. A member of the U.S. Army’s all-black 372nd Infantry Regiment, Logan took part in the battles of the Argonne in France in 1918 and was promoted from private to lieutenant.

After the war, he stayed in France for five years, lending key support to W.E.B. Du Bois’ fledgling Pan-African Congress. He developed especially close ties to the diplomatic corps of Haiti, the new world’s first independent black republic. Returning to the United States in 1924, Logan soon took up teaching duties at Virginia Union and Atlanta universities while assisting Carter G. Woodson in building the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History into a thriving research institution.

Somehow, Logan also found time to earn a master’s degree in history from Williams in 1929 and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1936 (incidentally, the university’s tercentenary). His Harvard dissertation, published as a book in 1941, was titled The Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Haiti, 1776-1891. It was groundbreaking, as Kenneth Janken writes in the African American National Biography: “In the 1920s and 1930s [Logan’s] scholarship on Haiti and colonial Africa earned him national recognition not only in the black diaspora—he was awarded Haiti’s Order of Honor and Merit in 1941 for his scholarship and advocacy—but also from influential, predominantly white organizations such as the Foreign Policy Association.”

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