Carter Reads the Newspaper

What better way to begin a unit on Black History Month than by studying the man who laid the foundation for it? Carter G. Woodson was the son of slaves, and his family lived a hardscrabble existence. As a child, he only attended school four months of the year because he was needed for farm work. Throughout his adolescence, he continued supporting his family financially as a hired hand on neighboring farms, by driving a garbage wagon, and working as a coal miner. It was in the mines that he met Oliver Jones, a man much like Woodson’s father in that he could not read or write but had great intellectual curiosity. Jones opened his home in the evenings to other miners. When it was discovered that Woodson could read, he was asked to share with the adults what was in the newspapers Jones kept at his home. As Woodson informed the men about goings-on in the world, he informed himself, doing additional research to answer the men’s questions about the stories covered in the papers. At last, Woodson was able to attend high school, and from there he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. A professor made the rather bizarre and entirely offensive comment that Black Americans had no history, which further fueled the fire to find out more about his people’s past that had been lit in Woodson as a young man in the company of those proud, hard-working miners. In 1926, he created Negro History Week to highlight the history and contributions of Black Americans. In time, this week-long celebration would expand to Black History Month. He worked hard to promote the idea, sending materials to a variety of organizations, educational institutions, and the media. In her author’s note, Hopkinson writes that Woodson also pushed for more books about Black Americans. “Ask repeatedly for such books. Show that there is a demand for them,” he said. The faces of more than 40 notable Black American figures appear throughout the book and on the inside covers, and they are identified in the back matter, a great resource for selecting individuals to profile as a Black History Month project. Illustrator Tate uses mixed media to create softly-colored images that are still strong in their portrayal of various people and points in Woodson’s life. And like the illustrations, Hopkinson’s writing style has a gentleness to it but is nonetheless powerful in its telling of Woodson’s accomplishments. This is an important book not only for its focus on the origin of Black History Month but for its message of perseverance in one’s life and making a difference in the lives of others.

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