National Park Service plans to repair Carter G. Woodson house

The front door of the old rowhouse on Ninth Street NW needs a shove to get it free, and it creaks as Joy G. Kinard slowly pushes it open.

Except for its ghosts, it’s empty inside.

(U. S. Library of Congress/ ) - The 1979 photograph of the home of Carter G. Woodson, known as the founder of Black History Month, at 1538 9th St. NW.
  • (U. S. Library of Congress/ ) - The 1979 photograph of the home of Carter G. Woodson, known as the founder of Black History Month, at 1538 9th St. NW.
  • (U. S. Library of Congress/ ) - The 1979 photograph of the home of Carter G. Woodson, known as the founder of Black History Month, at 1538 9th St. NW.

(U. S. Library of Congress/ ) - The 1979 photograph of the home of Carter G. Woodson, known as the founder of Black History Month, at 1538 9th St. NW.

Video

This rare footage shows Carter G. Woodson sitting at his desk at his 9th Street home in D.C. The National Park Service is seeking funding to restore the now dilapidated home of the man referred to as, “the father of black history.”

This rare footage shows Carter G. Woodson sitting at his desk at his 9th Street home in D.C. The National Park Service is seeking funding to restore the now dilapidated home of the man referred to as, “the father of black history.”

Part of the hallway ceiling has come down, and the paint on the spiral staircase is flaking off. A rear wall is held up with steel girders, and, out front, the “National Historic Landmark” plaque is dirty and faded.

But as Kinard, of the National Park Service, enters, the story of Carter G. Woodson’s long-dilapidated home emerges — along with plans for its rebirth as a center for black scholarship.

Here, from 1922, when he bought the house for $8,000, through 1950, when he died in bed in his third-floor bedroom, this modest three-story brick building was the capital of African American history studies.

Here, in this 140-year-old dwelling in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, Woodson, the solitary Harvard-educated son of former slaves, gave birth to black history amid some of the worst days of segregation in America.

In this house, he built his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Journal of Negro History and what has now become Black History Month. He also wrote books and essays, and he ran a publishing business out of the basement.

He was, he said, determined to construct the history of African Americans that was left out of the nation’s textbooks.

“He dug down into the cells of darkness and revealed to us the background of the Negro,” his friend and neighbor, the great black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, wrote, according to a Park Service study by Pero Gaglo Dagbovie.

But Woodson died before the great civil rights crusade of the 1960s, and since then, time has been cruel to his legacy, and his house, until recently, was virtually derelict.

Now the Park Service, which acquired the house and two others nearby in 2005 for $1.3 million, is requesting a $95,000 grant through a program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express.

The program, called Partners in Preservation, invites the public to vote online for 24 Washington area sites that have applied for some of its $1 million in preservation funding.

Some others in the running are Washington National Cathedral, Congressional Cemetery and Mount Vernon.

Voting is underway through May 10.

The Park Service — along with Woodson’s old fraternity, Omega Psi Phi — has wanted to restore Woodson’s house for years, using the other two homes as a visitor center and office space.

The government has spent an additional $1 million on emergency stabilization — in part to keep the back from falling down — and on research and planning, Kinard, a Park Service manager, said last week.

But the cost of total restoration would be about $10 million, she said. And for now, the Park Service is asking for the money mainly to fix the bulging rear wall.

“The situation with the Carter G. Woodson house is: It is in desperate need of rehabilitation,” Kinard said. Paint is peeling inside and out. Plaster is cracked. Windows are broken or sealed with cinder blocks.

But once restored, the site “will be an amazing way to not only talk about Woodson, the man, the historian, and what he did to reform education globally, but it will also connect the visitor to his legacy,” she said.

Dagbovie, a professor at Michigan State University, wrote in his report:

“Woodson and his colleagues challenged racism in U.S. popular culture and the ivory towers of the American academies, laid the foundations for the rigorous . . . study of African American history, and . . . were committed to teaching . . . black history throughout black communities.”

But after Woodson died, the organization he founded, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, began a decline, Dagbovie wrote. It moved out of the house in the 1970s and is based at Howard University.

And although the house became a National Historic Landmark in 1976, it was unoccupied by the 1980s and has remained so for 30 years, the Park Service said in a separate report last year.

“When we first purchased the property, it was in horrible condition,” Kinard said. “Drug addicts and prostitutes lived in the home before we got it. It was a den of iniquity.” And Hurricane Irene and the Washington area earthquake, both in 2011, took a further toll.

But in its prime, it was alive with the energy of Woodson’s crusade. Langston Hughes, the renowned black poet, worked in the house in the 1920s and once was gently chastised by Woodson for wasting time playing cards.

Woodson, who had driven a garbage wagon and worked as a coal miner, never married, saying he was wedded to his work. He was formal, proper and disciplined. He ate prunes, always wore a suit and dined out at the YWCA.

Last week, Kinard, 37, and Janette Hoston Harris, 73, former president of Woodson’s history association — who once worked in the house — toured the structure and told its story.

As they entered, their voices echoed.

“It was an eerie feeling,” Harris said of working there after Woodson died. “You felt that you were a part of the real history. So many books. So many magazines. So many pictures of Woodson.”

“His office was on the second floor,” she said. “He slept on the third floor.”

His Associated Publishers was housed in the basement. “Remember, whites weren’t publishing black articles or books . . . because they didn’t believe black history was a real study,” Harris said.

“This was the receptionist’s area,” Harris said, indicating the front room, where sunlight poured in the window. “People came down and talked to you here, and then you went upstairs to where the offices were.”

Kinard said she was a longtime admirer of Woodson. “So to be in this place that he conceived his ideas and philosophies and to know that I’m . . . connected to the restoration of it — restoring what happened here — it’s unbelievable,” she said.

“I can’t believe I’m here.”

 
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