CARTER G. Woodson, the historian, had a number of good and lasting ideas. Negro History Week, later expanded to Black History Month, was one. Another was the Negro History Bulletin, a magazine designed for the history student and layman.
In the latest issue of the Negro History Bulletin, its subscribers read about: York, the black servant in the Lewis and Clark expedition; Jupiter Hammon, the first published black poet in America; Louis Mehlinger, a 100-year-old Washington lawyer and the first black member of the Federal Bar Association in Washington; Emma Cheeseboro, a woman bedridden for 20 years and now writing poetry; Myrtilla Miner, the founder of the old D.C. Teachers College; Betty Dederich, a California woman who conquered her drug addiction, and an essay on Michigan's contributions to folk remedies.
The Bulletin, a quarterly published in Washington for the last 45 years by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, is a major periodical source of black history. Its tone is authoritative. The articles are varied and often exclusive, from an unpublished poem of Paul Laurence Dunbar to a biography of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
Like many other small scholarly publications, the Bulletin never reaches the newsstands, and therefore its impact on a broader culture is limited. The Association says its circulation is 21,000. No matter how limited its audience, how staid it was considered during the late 1960s or how many of its functions have been duplicated by the media and general publications, it has survived. "I can't think of anything like us in the history field," says J. Rupert Picott, the current editor of the Bulletin.
Only five people have edited the Bulletin: Woodson, Rayford Logan, Albert Brooks and Charles Wesley. The current editor has all the trappings of a successful corporate executive: blue three-piece suit and a booming voice suited for the corporate dining room or pulpit.
Picott came to the historian's mantle in a roundabout way. He taught social studies at Hampton Institute in Virginia, directed the evaluations office at the National Education Association and held the unpaid position of national president of the History Association from 1967 to 1970, before taking the full-time position as Bulletin editor 10 years ago. To deflect some of the criticism directed at his short career as a historian, Picott has written five books since 1975. The Bulletin is his special pride. He calls it "my baby" and "a sacred trust."
It may not have the beat of Stevie Wonder's popular list of achievements, "Black Man," but the Bulletin itself is history.
In 1937 Woodson, who founded the Association in 1915, started the Bulletin primarily to produce a lively history magazine for students, and to fill the void of printed material for blacks, correct misperceptions and pump up racial self-esteem. "To provide a scholarly yet popular publication to carry the message of Negro achievement, participation and success in America," says Picott. Decades later, the purpose of information and enlightenment has changed little. The magazine is produced in a triangular brick building at Rhode Island Avenue and 14th Street NW. Inside, corridors are decorated with blown-up photographs of black personalities such as the late general Chappie James. The rugs are well-worn from the tracks of scholars.
The Association's other quarterly publication, The Journal of Negro History (circulation 4,000), has always been edited by a scholar outside the Association. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, believed if blacks didn't know their history, they would accept racial oppression. "Yet, he also envisioned the Bulletin as a house organ," says Picott. The first Bulletins were four-page capsules of Association news.
In 1926 Woodson initiated Negro History Week, renamed and expanded to a month in 1978. To some observers it seems the annual black achievement commemoration, which ended last week, has waned since the heyday of the black studies movement, the Bicentennial and "Roots." Picott, however, hasn't observed any decline in interest or celebration. "I have experienced no dearth of invitations," he says.
In 1972 the Association changed its name, but the names of the Journal and Bulletin were not changed, at Woodson's request. Some historians and readers believe that by trying to enlarge its scope, the Bulletin has lessened its impact. Its black readership has the option of general feature magazines, like Ebony and Ebony Jr. And its specialized departments -- book reviews, poetry, bibliographies, surveys and the presidential candidates agenda for minorities -- overlap with similar treatments in publications such as Black Enterprise and Black Books Bulletin.
"It lacks the substance it used to have," says Jannette Hoston Harris, associate professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia. Also, it is uneven. The current cover, of James Kilgore, an English professor who has been named "Poet of the Year" in Ohio, is not matched by a story inside the magazine.
Its value to other historians, however, has not diminished. Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of the Bethune Museum and Archives in Washington, still recommends the Bulletin as a research tool. And its fundamental approach remains part of its value. "It still has tremendous impact," says Collier-Thomas. "My students were born in 1965; all history is ancient to them. So people like them, and people who aren't going to college, get a real introduction."
Picott says he doesn't believe the magazine has shortchanged those looking for more interpretative or provocative material. He says that in his 10 years as editor he has moved the magazine to more challenging topics, such as the Constitution and black America, issues that at times have anticipated public discussion, and initiated dialogue by taking surveys of, for example, black school superintendents and mayors.
"We have been ahead of the game in many cases. In 1975 we waved the flag. We took the position to call together a group of leaders on black participation in the Bicentennial. A trend had set in that people said no matter what you did wasn't going to make a difference," says Picott, pointing to a red, white and blue cover of the Bulletin. In that edition, an article by Benjamin Quarles details black involvement in the Revolutionary War and proposals for celebrations by civic, religious and health groups. "We have used the Bulletin as a catalyst for change, used it to promote. Our conferences have evaluated topics, like integration in the inner city." Currently, Picott is conducting a survey of Afro-American studies departments and courses in 200 colleges.
Many of the articles are rewrites of speeches or research papers, which leads to an uneven historical and literary quality. But Picott says, "In history the professor publishes or perishes. Our publication can make a difference." And he believes that the reduction in university faculties, the slowing down of recruitment of black teachers and of solicitations of black subject matter for magazines, has helped the Bulletin. "Our quality of materials is higher than before.