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The DC Roots of Black History Month

On the southeast corner of the intersection of 12th and U Street NW, there is an office building that until very recently had a Starbucks on the ground floor. On that very site had stood Robert L. Pendleton’s Print Shop, one of the first black-owned printing shops in Washington, DC. Robert L Pendleton established his business in 1886 and would go on to print numerous publications by notable black authors including W.E.B. Du Bois, Alfred Grimke, and Alain Locke. He taught printing at Howard University and also established the first black branch of the Scottish Rite Masons Temple in the southern jurisdiction. His shop was also the location from which Dr. Carter G Woodson began his lifelong work of bringing the history of African people to the public. In 1922, Dr. Woodson rented a space in the shop from Mr. Pendleton. From there he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), before he moved the headquarters to his home at 1538 Ninth Street, NW.



Dr. Carter Woodson was a key figure in the “New Negro Movement,” a phrase coined by fellow historian and philosopher Alain Locke, a professor at Howard University. Dr. Woodson was only the second African American man to get his doctorate in history from Harvard, after W.E.B. du Bois. While he was there he was told by his professors that African Americans, and Africans in general, have no history. Not accepting this racist assessment, he made it his life’s work to prove them wrong. He set about collecting books, letters, and any documents he could find to build a library that contributed to telling the story of African Americans and where they came from. He worked with Pendleton’s print shop to ensure that these histories were published and available for public consumption.


Dr. Woodson and the ASALH established the first Negro History Week in 1926 and timed it so it would coincide with the birthdays of President Lincoln (February 12th) and Frederick Douglas (February 14th). Both of these dates had become unofficial days of observance within the black community. He saw it as an opportunity for the country to acknowledge the history and accomplishments of African Americans, and encourage others to learn about them as well. The idea quickly gained steam, with schools around the country picking up on it and teachers incorporating the history into their lesson plans. Schools and community organizations started planning events around Negro History Week, to the point that Dr. Woodson could barely keep up with his support.


Dr. Carter G. Woodson died in 1950, but then came another activist who continued his work in the 1950s and 60s. Frederick Hammaurabi, who was running a cultural center in Chicago, had already been expanding the educational program of Black History Week into a full month. In addition, the ASALH had also gained in numbers and support, with black students continuing Dr. Woodson's work and activism throughout the Civil Rights Movement. In 1976, it was finally made official that Negro History Week now be Black History Month, and has been endorsed by every President since Jimmy Carter in its importance to recognizing black achievements and encouraging the study of black history as an integral part of understanding the history of this nation. Similar observances are now made in other countries as well, including Canada and Australia.


I stop at the former location of Mr. Pendleton’s print shop on my Harlem Renaissance in DC tour, because this spot marks the beginning of something that is now celebrated worldwide in different iterations. As I mentioned at the top of this post, the most recent resident was a Starbucks until the location recently closed. I’m curious what will occupy the space next, but who ever they are, I hope they recognize the gravity of former residence of the address and the important work accomplished by the people who had labored inside of it.


In honor of Dr. Woodson and Black History Month, I am offering a special promotion for the Harlem Renaissance in DC and Historic Alleyways tours in February. Both of these tours focus on the lives and contributions of African Americans in Washington, DC and I want to honor their legacy. You can find the schedule of these tours at www.otmdc.com and use promo code BHM2021 at the time of purchase. I look forward to the multitude of wonderful educational programs in February and I hope to see you on a tour soon!

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