by Adib Rashad ~
Esteemed scholar, Earl E. Thorpe believed that Negro/Black history was so
exciting he had no interest in researching any other subject. He wrote a
book, titled Negro Historians in the United States which traced three
schools or stages of thought as it related to Negro or rather Black
The first school or beginning school of Black historians were the actually
the first to engage in Negro/Black history writing. Their purpose was to
dispel the myth of Black inferiority, and appeal, what they considered, to
the conscience of the nation. This group had faith that the race would
advance and they believed in the so-called American Democratic principles.
They were also staunch Christians who applied their faith to their noble
I hasten to add that these writers were not academically trained historians;
they discovered material, wrote about their discoveries and their experiences
out of passion and concern for the race.
They wrote from 1830 to 1890. They wrote primarily to justify emancipation
by demonstrating that members of the race had made major contributions. As
stated above, they were not trained historians. They believed that once the
evidence was presented that Blacks had performed major deeds, better and more
opportunities would open up for them.
This group of historians were not hostile or vindictive toward race conscious
European America. In fact, they did not attack the slave system. Professor
Thorpe believed that this was because of their lack of formal education.
Because of their of lack of historical training, they did shallow,
superficial research, and they documented very poorly, if at all. They were
only interested in presenting the material as it became available.
History like their Christian religion was a soul saving tenet.
The most structured writer of this beginning school was George Washington
Williams. He was most noted for reporting about the atrocities in the
Belgian Congo; however, Reverend William Sheppard took a more consistent,
Nevertheless, Williams was more intensive in his writings than the other
beginning school historians.
Williams lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army and the Mexican
Army where he quickly became a Lieutenant Colonel. He was later ordained a
minister and he passed the bar exam to practice law.
Afterwards, he wrote a comprehensive two volume work titled The History of
the Negro Race in America 1619-1880. This was perhaps his greatest
achievement. He also wrote about Black soldiers in the Civil War; some
scholars, Dr. John Hope Franklin, for instance, believe this was his most
scholarly work simply because he used primary sources.
The other beginning school historian that is closely akin to Williams is/was
William Wells Brown, who wrote about his experiences as a slave, and he was
considered the first Black American to publish works in several literary
I would be remiss by not stating that Booker T. Washington and Frederick
Douglas are listed with this early group.
Despite their shortcomings, future Black historians were indebted to this
beginning school of history writers. They set the trend for investigative
study in Black history. Their involvement in Black history gave rise to the
works of W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson and others.
These early history writers cited unknown aspects of Black history such as
Black participation in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812,the Civil War,
and the contributions of Blacks to such areas as music and literature.
Long before Herbert Aptheker wrote his dissertation, American Negro Slave
Revolts, which was later published in book form, the beginning school
history writers tried to convince America that Blacks as slaves had not been
complacent, happy, docile, and willing, but that there was a considerable
anti-slavery movement constantly in place.
They were collectors of records, articles, newspapers, and they were keen
There is no doubt that because of their passionate mission, many sources of
Black history would be unavailable today.
The middle (second) school of historians, according to Dr. Thorpe, wrote from
1890 to 1930. This group were university trained students of history and
other social sciences. They, like their forerunners, were motivated to
dispel the sociological teachings of white supremacy and dispel the myth of
Black inferiority. They sought to utilize history as a stimulus by revealing
a creditable past of the race which would increase its pride and inspire it
to new heights.
Contrarily, there were some in this group who were more suited for the
beginning school. Nevertheless, their works were studied and placed in a
category of historical worth. Cases in point, Leon Gardiner compiled and
assembled data he had collected for several years. He had an uncontrollable
passion for the study and preservation of Black history. He worked nights in
the post office, but during the day he amassed a wealth of information
relating to the accomplishments of Blacks--namely in the United States. When
he was advised to slow his pace, he replied, If a man can not do what he
enjoys and that which is necessary he is better off dead. He placed all of
his acquired material (papers, magazines, books, monograms, letters, diaries
etc.) in the Afro-American Historical Society's Collection, which he acquired
and maintained. Later, he deposited those materials in the Historical
Society of Pennsylvania.
Delilah Isontium Beasley could very well have fit into the first group;
however, because of the time frame, she is considered a middle school
historian . She wrote and spoke out about racial injustice against Blacks in
a weekly column for the Sunday Oakland Tribune. She also published a book
titled, The Negro Trail-Blazers of California.
These historians set out to rewrite American history from a Black
perspective. They resented the manner in which European American history
books, professors, and curricula had mistreated Blacks. This group, unlike
their predecessors, were bitter and angry. Because of their bitterness, they
were able to write history from a more literary position.
This group was more prolific; they were also more methodological in their
research approach. They were persistent and impartial.
They not only wrote history, but also taught it, and they were active in
encouraging students to become specialists in Black history.
On the other hand, this group had difficulty synthesizing Black history with
the history of the Diaspora and the political and economic exploits of
Europe. Their concern, like the beginning group, was moralistic and based in
Christian tenets--not with standing their bitterness. Both groups were
similar in this regard. Both were propagandists for the uplift of the race.
Although the motivation differed slightly, both were excessively laudatory of
the race, and never analyzed the negative aspects of the race.
These two schools, as stated, paved the way for Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson.
Professor Thorpe stated the following: There are several similarities between
these first two schools.
1. Both are, to a considerable extent, propagandists for their race, although
the motivation differs somewhat for each school.
2. They are both excessively laudatory of their race while largely ignoring
the darker side of the Negro's history; both schools are more interested in
case-proving than in presenting a balanced story of the development of a
3. Both wrote almost exclusively on topics relating directly or indirectly to
4. Both groups tended to document inadequately.
Professor Charles Wesley is/was a part of this school/group because his
efforts to get Black history accepted as a respectable area of study. He
stated the following: An interest should be awakened among Colored America
in its history, and encouragement should be given to its general reading,
study and investigation.
He shared this honor and belief with Luther Porter Jackson, Lorenzo Greene,
William Sherman Savage, and Ambush Alrutheus Taylor.
Socially, economically, and educationally, the last decade of the nineteenth
century ushered a turning point in the history of Blacks in America and the
writing of Black history. Educationally, in 1880 only thirteen Black
colleges existed in the South; a decade later the number of these
institutions had increased to twenty-two. Each year thereafter an increasing
number of Blacks graduated from college, although very few were at the
Thus by 1936 some 43,821 Blacks had received college degrees; 153 of which
were Doctors of Philosophy. By 1945 some 192 had been elected to Phi Beta
Kappa, and by 1943 at least 381 had received the doctor's or Ph. D degree.
African American/Black Historiography did not assume the character of a
scholarly crusade to reveal for Blacks a significant past until the
appearance of the above mentioned Ph. D's. As pointed out earlier, George
Washington Williams, William Wells Brown and others of the beginning
school/group gave preeminent and sole consideration to the creditable aspects
of Black history. They were motivated by a passion to refute the racist
teachings of the slave system--not to attack the system--and lay claim to
Black selfworth. However, they did not or could not respond to the so-called
scientific historical literature which was hostile to Blacks throughout the
The New School of African American historians, which I believe, emerged from
the 1930s onward tended to be more objective in their historical approach
than the other two schools. They were not as bitter, and their writings were
less Black focused as regard to racist propaganda. They documented more
thoroughly and they had a better grasp of the social sciences, which the
previous two groups lacked.
This new school was/is more international and they refuse to engage in
exclusive preoccupation with race based issues. They do not use history as a
propaganda tool. Most importantly, the writers of the new school were/are
not race crusaders in the strict sense of the word; therefore, they were/are
prolific writers. They saw the need for more exhaustive research and
scholarly writings. Thus it is safe to say that with the new school Black
historiography reached its zenith.
Attacking anti-Black propaganda had ceased to be a primary goal of the new
Black historian. However, the New Negro History Movement launched by Dr.
Carter G. Woodson in 1915 became a mass movement among some Black
intelectuals in the new school and they continued the legacy of the previous
two schools. The popular Negro History Week was a result of their struggle.
Despite the Black history movement and its successes, dominant figures such
as Woodson, DuBois, Cromwell, Williams, Brown, and others would no longer
loom large in the area of Black historiography. The new school historians
This decline in prominent recognition did not daunt the spirit of some middle
school historians--particularly Dr. Woodson. Woodson connected the Black
History Movement to the Pan-Africanist Movement of the Honorable Marcus
Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Both movements
heightened Africans' awareness of their historical past.
Garvey, like Woodson, used history to advance racial pride among his
followers, and Woodson's writings and the programs of Woodson's Association
for the the Study of Negro Life and History were frequently mentioned in
Garvey's newspaper the Negro World and in his Harlem-based paper, the
Daily Negro Times. Dr. Woodson also maintained ties with such Garveyites
as John Edward Bruce and E. Ethelred Brown.
Dr. Woodson wrote a weekly column for the Negro World, and as a result, he
was compared with Garvey as he promoted his book The Mis-Education of the
Negro. When Garvey died in 1940,Woodson published an obituary in the
Journal praising him and asserting that he had attracted a larger following
than any Negro who has been developed in modern times.
It is safe to say that, for the most part, no other beginning, middle, or new
school historian aligned him or herself with a Pan-Africanist or Black
Nationalist movement in the manner in which Dr. Woodson associated with the
Finally, Vincent Harding and Sterling Stuckey, two members of the new Black
history school or movement, acknowledged the debt that the present generation
owed to the earlier generations of Black historians. They argued that the
historians of the Negro History Movement (Old and Middle Schools), though
critical of racist treatment of Blacks, did not condemn America for her
crimes against Black people. Harding wrote, Negro History almost never
questioned the basic goodness and greatness of Americn society.
In contrast the advocates of the new Black history movement were unable and
unwilling to look at the historical record and believe that America would or
could change with regard to Black people. Therefore, these new Black
historians were more critical of main stream America. Stuckey declared, As
we move away from integrating Blacks into American history, we must concern
ourselves increasingly with flashing the search light over the terrain of the
American night, illuminating hidden horrible ruins.
Harding also declared, Black history does not seek to highlight the
outstanding contributions of special or unique Black people to the life and
times of America. Rather the emphasis is on exposure, disclosure, and
reinterpretation of the entire American past. He went on to say, Black
history is the consistent demand that the cancerous state of America be seen
Black history, from Stuckey and Harding's perspective, was far more than a
vigorous critique or condemnation of American racism. It was also the
history of the noble struggle of Blacks for control over their lives and
What Stuckey and Harding, I believe, ignored or overlooked is the fact that
the old Black/Negro pioneer historians from the three schools utilized
history as a weapon not only against American racial injustice, but also
against so-called Black inferiority.
In their effort to distinguish between the pioneer Black/Negro school of
history and the new Black history, Harding and Stuckey neglected to highlight
the important differences between Dr. Woodson, on the one hand, and Drs.
Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin on the other.
Most importantly, despite their conscious attempt to draw a line between the
old, middle and new Black history movement, Harding and Stuckey slowly
gravitated toward Dr. Woodson's perspective of celebratory Black History.
For example, Dr. Stuckey wrote a series of articles glorifying individual
African American personalities for the Nation of Islam's original organ,
The Muhammad Speaks.
Working with Carter G. Woodson The Father of Black History A Diary 1928-1950,
By Lorenzo Greene, Edited By Arvarch E. Strickland(Louisana State University
Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History By Jacqueline Goggin(Louisana
State Press, 1993)
George Washington Williams A Biography By John Hope Franklin(The University
of Chicago Press, 1985)
Rayford W. Logan and The Declemma of The African American Intellectual By
Kenneth Robert Janken(The UNiversity of Massachusetts Press, 1993)
Arthur Alfonso Schomburg Black Bibliophile and Collector A Biography By
Elinor Des Verney Sinnette( Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1989)
Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and The Foundations of Black America By
Sterling Stuckey(Oxford University Press, 1987)
Adib Rashad (RashadM@aol.com) is an education consultant, education
program director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught in
West Africa and South East Asia.
This article was previously published by theMarcusGarveyBBS (an entity of TheBlackList)
and TheBlackList at http://lists.topica.com/lists/TheBlackList/read