Almost everybody knows about Black History Month, but few know much about the organization that originated the celebration. Karen Robinson, executive director of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, wants to change that.
"It's a concern to me that people don't know where Black History Month originated," Robinson said in a recent interview at the association's headquarters at 1407 14th St. NW.
Founded in Washington in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson, the association began that year by sponsoring Negro History Week. Woodson chose the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14.
Negro History Week was originally intended as a way to raise public awareness of the contributions blacks have made to American society.
The event evolved in the late 1960s into Black History Week. By 1976, so many programs and celebrations were being held that one week was not long enough for schools and organizations to put on all the events.
That year, association members, then led by J. Rupert Picott, began a mail and telephone campaign to educators, civic leaders and government officials nationwide to make the observance monthlong.
By 1980, February was being declared Black History Month across the country.
The association also has changed, growing to more than 2,200 members in 30 active branches nationwide, including 600 members in five Washington branches. Baltimore also has a branch.
Robinson attributes the large number of Washington branches to the association's origins here.
Branches hold monthly meetings that often feature lectures by black authors, scholars, artists and historians. Association members such as Jenette Cascone, a historian and former teacher at Rutgers University, and Paul Cook, former president of D.C. Teachers College, have given black history lectures to church and community groups.
Funding difficulties have been a continual problem for the nonprofit organization, and that is another problem Robinson wants to rectify.
"We're looking for institutional members and corporate members," Robinson said. "Right now the bulk of our members are individual." (Corporate memberships are $1,000, institutional $500 and individual $40.)
Every year, the association publishes an "Afro-American history kit," which includes articles and essays. The theme of this year's kit is "The Constitutional Status of Afro-Americans Into the 21st Century." It sells for $39.95 and can be bought through the mail or by visiting the association's offices.
Since 1983, lack of funding has halted production of the association's two major publications: the Negro History Bulletin, a quarterly with articles and essays aimed primarily at secondary schools and libraries, and the monthly Journal of Negro History. However, the association continues to collect articles and essays submitted by historians and scholars. With increased funding, Robinson hopes to condense the backlog of material and eventually revive the publications.
Robinson, a 1984 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, became involved with the association in 1986 when she heard on a radio program that it was having property problems. She became executive director last July after practicing antitrust law at the Federal Trade Commission.
"What I had to address right away was getting our records in order," Robinson said. The association had been without an executive director for several months before she took the job.
With a staff limited to herself and two part-time workers, Robinson said she is looking for help from volunteers. "We need people with administrative skills, accounting experience, public relations experience and legal expertise."
Robinson said she also wants to publish the association's newsletter monthly. And she would like the association to sponsor more seminars and a speakers bureau.
Now the association is turning most of its attention to working off the $20,000 debt on Woodson's home at 1538 Ninth St. NW, which had been the association's headquarters.
The house has been designated a national landmark.
Robinson said the association is lobbying the National Park Service to upgrade the designation to a national historic site, thus making the house eligible for federal funds.
Summing up the association's goals, Robinson said: "When I was in college, I had no idea who was behind Black History Month. I want people to think of this organization when they think of Black History Month."