A few years ago, television documented Alex Haley's discovery of his roots. At a national headquarters building in Washington, historical records of millions of black Americans are in danger of vanishing.
The Carter G. Woodson Center, 1401 14th St. NW -- home of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, which contains valuable documents dating back several hundred years -- and Woodson's birthplace, on Ninth Street NW, are scheduled to be sold at public auction Jan. 21 for nonpayment of $60,000 in real estate taxes and other debts.
If that isn't bad enough, this major repository of black history and culture, the first to spotlight systematically the black contribution in the United States and around the world, is about to fold on the eve of the worldwide celebration in February of Black History Month, which Woodson started 59 years ago.
Like millions of blacks, I was raised on Carter G. Woodson's writings, "The Miseducation of the Negro" being his most famous publication.
As the leader of the Negro history movement, he inspired self-esteem in the black masses, providing us with a clearer mirror in which to see, as a Ralph Ellison witticism put it, the uncreated features of our face.
From this new image emerged many role models and heroes such as Matthew A. Henson, who helped explore the North Pole; Ralph Bunche, one of this country's greatest diplomats, and Dr. Charles Drew, whose discovery of blood plasma has saved countless lives.
Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History 70 years ago. During our nation's long ordeal with segregation, the association's historians and scholars not only educated black Americans but white Americans as well about the long-ignored role of blacks in nearly every phase of the United States' development.
When, in 1954, the Supreme Court rendered its decision banning school segregation, critics contended that the final decision was based more on social factors than on law, thanks in part to Woodson's organization and association members who funneled information to NAACP lawyers.
"What the association has done to change the attitudes of the country . . . is just phenomenal," said Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene, an Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History board member and retired history professor at Lincoln University in Missouri.
So how has this citadel of black culture fallen on such hard times? Who's responsible for this?
To find the answer, I talked to the association's current executive director, Bonnie J. Gillespie.
According to Gillespie, many of the difficulties arose before he joined the staff. "In the 15 months that I have been executive director," he said, "I have dispatched over 20,000 pieces of mail attempting to shore up our sagging budgetary situation. Many members responded positively . . . but the crisis will continue until we pay off all our outstanding bills."
Because of bad debts and unstable cash flow, several banks refused loans to the organization.
Businessman John Raye, who is spearheading an effort to save the center and collection, didn't want to dwell on my questions about proper management. "Black people have not financially supported the association . . . . It is the general apathetic condition that surrounds black people in Washington and across this country," he said.
So the association needs immediate help, and a massive rally for this purpose has been scheduled at Shiloh Baptist Church, 9th and P streets NW, on Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.
Of course, we should not pour good money after bad, and according to Raye, who is being helped in the drive by a black businessmen's organization called the Eagles, if the fund-raiser is successful, new management procedures will be installed to ensure that this repository will not have to be in such dire straits again.
At a time when our nation's Jewish community is planning to build a much-needed memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and several other ethnic groups are planning similar memorials, this organization is much too important to die.
For if it dies, we lose more than a great repository of culture; every black person loses a connection with his or her roots, and with that loss, a piece of his or her identity is destroyed.