George L. Daniels, Ph.D., The University of Alabama
Carter G. Woodson: History, The Black Press and Public Relations
Author: Burnis R. Morris
University Press of Mississippi, 2017
How many people know the story behind the observance of Black History Month each February? Black History Month began as a celebration of Negro History Week nearly 100 years ago. The man who started it all, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, is also linked to the field of public relations. Henry Louis Gates’ (2017) 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro included an article answering the question, “How did Black History Month come into being?” Gates (2017) called Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week, which was to take place during the second week of February, a “public relations coup” (p. 267). Newspaper articles about Negro History Week began running in January 1926, which was the first year of the observance organized by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization Carter G. Woodson formed.
In telling the story of Black History Month, Gates (2017) also mentioned an editorial that Woodson wrote about what was known about the accomplishments of Black Americans and what was taught on those accomplishments in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. That editorial was published in The Chicago Defender, one of the most widely read Black-owned newspapers. The opinion piece exemplified the articles used in the development of another book, which we review here.
Burnis Morris’ most recent treatment on Carter G. Woodson shines the spotlight on his strategic communications work in Black-owned news outlets. Carter G. Woodson: History, The Black Press and Public Relations offers a history of the Black Press from 1915 to 1950 while introducing the reader to several functions of the public relations practitioner.
For a public relations educator, Morris’ book is an ideal resource to incorporate racially diverse examples into one’s class whether the lesson is about public relations writing, public relations campaigns, or media promotion strategies. Besides creating what is known today as Black History Month and its sponsoring organization, ASNLH, Woodson also was the founder of the Journal of Negro History. And, though a heart attack claimed his life at the age of 74 in 1950, Woodson brought dramatic changes in attitudes about African American history and culture. Morris’ recent book shows us how using public relations tools.
How The Book is Structured
In the fifth of six chapters, “Managing Public Relations,” Morris included a table listing eight modern public relations elements and examples used by Woodson, the man known as “Father of Black History.” Many of those eight elements (research, media relations, publicity, member relations, fund-raising, minority relations/multicultural affairs, special events, and issues management) were exemplified in the work of Woodson’s association, ASNLH, which raised money to print the Journal of Negro History and advance the Negro history movement. Along with a section on “Woodson as Publicist,” Morrison included a detailed timeline on the 1926 launch of Negro History week using examples from articles in the Black Press.
Elsewhere in the book, Morris opens in Chapter 1 with a background on Woodson’s early life in Buckingham County, Virginia, where he was born in 1875, one of nine children. The reader gains insight on his development as a scholar including Woodson becoming the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University (the other person to accomplish that goal was W.E.B. DuBois.) Chapter 2 connects the newspaper history and Woodson’s partnership with the Black Press from 1915 to 1950. Then in Chapter 3, he focused on how newspapers covered Woodson from his days as a high school student in Appalachia to a high-profile celebrity in Washington, D.C. Morris provides a thematic analysis from the columns in Chapter 4, which spotlights the news and promotional value of Woodson’s writings. In the book’s closing Chapter 6, Morris details how, at the time of his death, Woodson was one of the most recognizable African Americans in the world. He explains aspects of the Carter G. Woodson legacy and makes a compelling argument for why Woodson’s use of modern public relations techniques to popularize Black History warrants inclusion in journalism history and public relations books.
Public Relations and The Black Press
The purpose of Morris’ book is to explain how Woodson seized opportunities available through the black newspapers—that helped make him a household name and leveraged his celebrity to sell and popularize history. The book is the latest in several media scholars’ efforts to spotlight public relations in efforts for racial injustice. For Woodson, the greatest injustice was the dearth of understanding of Negro history. More recently, other scholars like Murphree (2006), who focused on the PR tactics of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Hon (1997) in her research on PR strategies in the overall Civil Rights Movement, offer examples of how to link public relations to topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Additionally, a recent study spotlighted public relations, social advocacy and digital communication of the Justice for Trayvon Martin campaign (Hon, 2015).
What sets Morris’ book apart is the combination of depth of study on the Black Press and the functions of modern public relations. To complete his study, he reviews more than 500 articles containing hard news stories, features, columns, and editorials in The Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro American, Chicago Defender, Cleveland Call and Post, Louisiana Weekly, Negro World, New York Amsterdam News, Norfolk Journal and Guide, Philadelphia Tribune, and Pittsburgh Courier. Morris also examined letters and other correspondence such as those he had with Luther P. Jackson, a history professor at Virginia State College who helped raise funds to support Woodson’s effort.
Even for those not teaching public relations, Morris’ book is a great read because it provides a more complete picture of the Father of Black History. It shows the power of public relations writing in advocating for the complete view of the accomplishments of African Americans. Media historians will find Morris’ use of primary sources in his analysis of dozens of letters and hundreds of articles worthy of reference in teaching young scholars how to produce a historical study. Additionally, students of the Black Press will benefit from seeing how these outlets were used in advocacy for education policy change in the years between 1915 and 1950. At the same time, these newspapers also illuminated the agendas of the scholarly association behind The Journal of Negro History. Academic scholars who sometimes struggle with balancing their work as a researcher with their calling for social justice advocacy will find insight in the strategies of Carter G. Woodson, who wrote for their peers reading scholarly journals and the larger community reading Black newspapers.
Gates, H. L. (2017). 100 Amazing facts about the Negro. Pantheon Books.
Hon, L. (1997). To redeem the soul of America: Public relations and the Civil Rights Movement. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(3), 163-212. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr0903_01
Hon, L. (2015). Digital social advocacy in the Justice for Trayvon campaign. Journal of Public Relations Research, 27(4), 299-321. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2015.1027771
Murphree, V. (2006). The selling of civil rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the use of public relations. Routledge.
© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division
To cite this article: Daniels, G.L. (2021). Carter G. Woodson: History, The Black Press and Public Relations. [Review of the book Carter G. Woodson: History, The Black Press and Public Relations , by Burnis R. Morris]. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 215-219. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2454