Here, as you walk through the gallery, is a bill of sale signed April 19, 1809, to James Madison from Thomas Jefferson for one slave. Here is a letter the Rev. Francis Grimke, the pastor of Washington's Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, wrote to Woodrow Wilson on Sept. 5, 1913, blasting segregation within the federal government. Here is the annotated typescript stanza of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Unsung Heroes."
And here, in this Library of Congress exhibition titled "Moving Back Barriers: The Legacy of Carter G. Woodson," are rare editions of the historian's 15 books, the illustrations for his publications from the masters James L. Wells and Lois Mailou Jones, and Woodson's correspondence with the famous -- from George Washington Carver to Booker T. Washington to Mary Church Terrell.
Woodson, the man who founded Negro History Week nearly 70 years ago and lived for three decades in Washington, spent his life documenting and collecting evidence of the ideas and achievements of black Americans -- and often the world around them. The exhibition stands as an umbrella of many topics. To promote black history, Woodson and others founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, which published the Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin, and started Associated Publishers, the oldest black publishing company in the country.
This work is the core of the exhibit. It's divided into eight categories and a good number of the artifacts are arranged on brown partitions, designed to resemble library stacks. It's a studied, precise touch. Woodson donated 5,000 items from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to the library. His words are stenciled on the walls: "Just as thorough education in the belief in the inequality of races has brought the world to the cat-and-dog stage of religious and racial strife, so may thorough instruction in the equality of races bring about a reign of brotherhood through an appreciation of the virtues of all races, creeds and colors."
The show strays away from the historian as the main focus in a way that might please Woodson, whose interests were eclectic. Part of the civil rights section is devoted to the case of William D. Crum, a black physician in Charleston, S.C., who was denied a promised political plum of customs collector. Included is a letter Woodson saved from Theodore Roosevelt to Booker T. Washington pledging his support to Crum.
To make the show livelier the staff plied the library's own collection of photographs from the Farm Security Administration to embellish a point of Woodson's. Two photographs are especially riveting: Arthur Rothstein's of a church school in Gee's Bend, Ala., in 1937 and Gordon Parks's of Mary McLeod Bethune at chapel services in 1943.
Born in New Canton, Va., in 1875 and the son of former slaves, Woodson worked on the railroad and in coal mines and was 20 before he went to high school. In the next two decades he finished high school and earned degrees from Berea College, the University of Chicago and Harvard University, where he was the second African American to earn a PhD in history. William E.B. Du Bois, who was the first, would later say of Woodson, "Few men have made so deep an imprint as Carter Woodson on thousands of scholars in historical study and research."
Much of his pioneering work is acknowledged in the exhibit. With the help of a grant from Laura Spelman Rockefeller, Woodson did a study of the 1830 census and listed the blacks who had owned slaves. He also wrote "The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1860" and "The Mis-Education of the Negro," which took black educators to task for failing to design a curriculum especially for blacks. One book is opened to an appreciation by Woodson of a Washington schoolteacher who shared his mission of empowering black children through knowledge of their history.
The first visitors to the exhibit had plenty of recollections. All of the images of Woodson, including the formal photograph by Washington's Scurlock Studio, show a stern man in a tailored suit, starched collar and polished shoes. But he could be funny and warm, Lois Mailou Jones recalled. Standing by her four-foot portrait of Woodson, she chuckled. "Oh, he was very severe and the perfect gentleman. What would happen was a call at 10 p.m. and he would say, 'Be here at 10 a.m., I need an illustration for this article, this book.' "
Another venerable Washingtonian, Dorothy Porter Wesley, described how Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA. He would teasingly decline her dinner invitations. "He would say, 'No, you are trying to marry me off. I am married to my work,' " she remembered. "He was always trying to do too much, and he really wished that one day there would be no need for Negro History Week." It officially became Black History Month in 1976, 26 years after his death.
At family gatherings Woodson was both scholar and raconteur. "He had fine stories to tell. His father was a slave who had helped the Union soldiers, and when he heard they were building a high school for blacks in Huntington he moved his family to West Virginia," says Marion Jackson Pryde, a cousin who taught in D.C. elementary schools for 41 years. Woodson would arrive at the family home near 15th and T streets NW for Christmas dinner with an autographed book for each child that he had wrapped in white tissue paper and red ribbon. Always he had a bearing and a message of excellence. "He was exacting but with us he dropped all of that," said Pryde. Her sister, Ursula Jackson Holmes, observed, "He had nothing to do with anybody who wasn't trying to do something."
Besides collections of the library and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, the exhibition draws from some private collections of black memorabilia. Jerome C. Gray, a sergeant on the D.C. police force, donated several items, including the 1933 annual meeting program of Woodson's association, the framed "first day" program for the Woodson commemorative stamp and first editions. "I was impressed that he was a publisher and got the word out to give Negroes at that time pride, because a lot of times people couldn't find a lot of material," says Gray.
The exhibit, which is the second the library has mounted for African American history season, runs until April 26 in the Atrium Lobby of the library's Madison Building.