Black History Month: Education, Play, and the Legacies of Carter G. Woodson
Posted on February 20, 2023
This post is written by Shannon Baker, Graduate Student Apprentice.
Black History Month can trace its roots back nearly a century, to the work of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a historian of African American History. The founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), as well as the Journal of Negro History (published today as the Journal of African American History), Dr. Woodson worked to rectify the ignorance regarding African American history, particularly in educational systems.
With his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson argued that educational systems failed to teach Black children to ask difficult, critical questions. He “noted the prevailing ignorance and lack of information concerning black life and history” throughout school curriculums. In the face of this miseducation, Woodson pioneered a “Negro History Week” in February 1926, to showcase the contributions of Black Americans. In 1970, The Black United Students at Kent State University then expanded Woodson’s concept from a week to the entirety of February. Since 1976, every U.S. President has designated February as National Black History Month.
Black History Month sees yearly speeches, lectures, and exhibits in its honor. Over the years, people have tried new ways to educate Americans on the importance of Black history, including documentaries and art installations. Some came up with another answer, one which people of all generations could experience together: board games.
Patrick Rael wrote of history-themed board games for the American Historical Association, stating that “On the most basic level, playing games enhances students’ fluency with historical basics – the who, what, where, and when of a particular history. On a more advanced level, games permit players to imagine changing historical outcomes. They invite discussions of counterfactuality and contingency.”
Over the past century, many history-themed board games have been created with Carter G. Woodson’s goal in mind: educating people about African American history and culture. Among such games in Swem Special Collections is Forty Famous Black Americans, made in 1988 with the goal of “improv[ing] your knowledge of the tremendous contributions that have been made to the United States throughout its history by black men and women.” Included in the game were portrait, biography, and quiz cards, so that a player would be able to learn and test others about the accomplishments of those included in the game. Some of the famous people included were Martin Luther King, Jr., Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Crispus Attucks, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month itself.
“The cards will introduce you to a cross-section of famous black Americans who have excelled in every field,” the introduction to Forty Famous Black Americans says, “You will meet and learn more about black scientists, artists, and world leaders; about writers, athletes, and entertainers – each of them an individual of courage, intelligence, and skill who may serve as a role model for future famous Americans of all races.”
Other games are available in the SCRC Racial and Ethnic Ephemera Collection, though it is important to note that not all the games in the collection were made with Dr. Woodson’s goal of education at heart. Rather than educate, some game makers sought to make fun of or negate Black progress and intellect – yet another example of the miseducation Dr. Woodson pointed out. This Black History Month, we encourage you to consider the ways in which people are educated, particularly regarding histories that are often ignored or go un-taught.