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The story behind the man responsible for Black History Month


It's Black History Month. And the man who laid the foundations of this celebration is Carter G. Woodson. He founded Black History Week in 1926. It became a full month in the 1970s. NPR's Sandhya Dirks has this story about some of Woodson's descendants and how they've come together in an unexpected way.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: When he was in middle school, Brett Woodson Bailey's mom sat him down.

BRETT WOODSON BAILEY: 'Cause my mom made a big deal about it, like, when she told me. She was like, you are the descendant of a very famous historical figure.

DIRKS: His great-great-great-uncle was Carter G. Woodson.

WOODSON BAILEY: Obviously, I was like, who the heck is that? I've never met that man.

DIRKS: As he got older, Brett came to understand he was descended from the father of Black history.

WOODSON BAILEY: I'm not exactly, like, carrying down his legacy too much. Well, I guess I kind of am by still being here 'cause, you know, he was a fighter fighting for civil rights.

DIRKS: There's a saying that some Black folks have - we are our ancestors' wildest dreams because surviving is no small thing. Brett also survived a rare and aggressive childhood cancer. Now, he's a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz.

WOODSON BAILEY: I want to be a wildlife biologist.

DIRKS: He's also a track star who loves to run.

WOODSON BAILEY: It's, like, a freeing feeling.

DIRKS: And right now, he's sitting at a picnic table.

WOODSON BAILEY: He's pretty good at picking up. So let's see. He's a pretty busy guy.

DIRKS: Calling his cousin, who also plays a central role in this story.

CRAIG WOODSON: Hey, hey, Brett.

WOODSON BAILEY: Oh, dang - right there. Hey...

DIRKS: Craig Woodson has known Brett since he was born. He's a distant cousin, nearly six decades older. And there's another thing.

WOODSON BAILEY: Maybe in the back of my head I thought it was kind of weird that he was white. I'm like, I don't have any other white cousins.

DIRKS: How'd he get a white cousin? That happened long before Brett was born. It was one of those moments when the past crashes into the present and changes everything. Craig grew up proud he could trace his relatives all the way back to the beginnings of America.

C WOODSON: We knew the story - ancestors came from Jamestown.

DIRKS: But that story changed in 1984 when...

C WOODSON: I bought a stamp.

DIRKS: A postage stamp that honored Carter G. Woodson. Craig wanted to know why they shared a last name. And that's when he discovered...

C WOODSON: We enslaved people way back at Jamestown at the beginning of enslavement in this country.

DIRKS: His family purchased six of the first 20 Africans who were brought to America in 1619 on a ship called the White Lion.

C WOODSON: We had this horrible, horrible legacy.

DIRKS: Craig's an ethnomusicologist, and his specific field of study is African drumming. He knew a lot of Black people, and he was terrified to tell them what he'd found out.

C WOODSON: I just didn't want to be associated with slavery. And I didn't want to face that. And that's what ultimately brought me to say, I've got to face it.

DIRKS: He finally confided in a close friend of his, a Black woman named Bette Cox. The tape sounds a little different here because I want to play you the first time Craig told me this part of the story, which was over Zoom.

C WOODSON: I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. I told her the story. And without batting an eye, in her beautiful way, she said, wow, that's interesting. My best friend is Alene (ph) Woodson, and her husband is Edgar. He's related to Carter G. You want to meet him? Just like boom, boom, boom. So that was it. Within 15 minutes or so of me telling her, I'm standing there talking to Edgar.

DIRKS: Edgar Woodson is Brett's grandfather. He's now passed. By the time Brett was born, they were all like family. Craig visited Brett in the hospital when he was sick. He taught him how to play drums. He taught him how to drive. Brett's parents are divorced. His mom was sick a lot, and Craig was there for them.

WOODSON BAILEY: I'm seeing someone who, like, I know for a fact had ancestors who were slave owners. And nothing else - like, it's just, like, made it very clear that, like, your ancestors don't define you.

DIRKS: At the same time, Brett is grappling with how the past lives on in the present, even in small ways, like when white people cross the street when he walks by.

WOODSON BAILEY: It could just be 'cause I stand out and, like, it's rare to see, like, a Black person on campus.

DIRKS: But even that, Brett knows, is a legacy of systemic racism, that he's one of the few Black students here.

I have a really philosophical question to ask you.


DIRKS: What does it mean to heal the past?

WOODSON BAILEY: To heal the past? Wow. That's, like, a - how do you start with a question like that? Heal the past?

DIRKS: It's exactly the question Craig's been trying to answer since the day he first saw that postage stamp. It's a question that led him to Brett's grandfather, Edgar. And a decade later, it led him to apologize publicly at a reconciliation ceremony at a Black church in Los Angeles. He roped in his whole white family, including his sister-in-law, Joan (ph) Woodson. She recalls, at first, some in the family didn't want to do it.

JOAN WOODSON: OK, are we going to be going there and then everybody's going to be yelling and screaming us as - at white people - as white people? And they said, we don't know whether we want to do that.

DIRKS: But they showed up, white Woodsons and Black Woodsons, including Brett's mom, Adele (ph). There's video from that day. Here's Craig.


C WOODSON: I apologize on behalf of my ancestors for the holocaust it has caused to your family and your ancestors. And I ask for your forgiveness.

DIRKS: Craig steps down off the dais and walks down the aisle towards Edgar. They embrace.


DIRKS: The white descendant of one of the first enslavers in America and the Black descendant of the man who helped establish the study of Black history. Craig has befriended other Black Woodsons, too. He's even done DNA tests.

MICHELLE EVANS OLIVER: I was shocked initially.

DIRKS: Michelle Evans Oliver (ph) is one of the people he matched with. It's a small genetic match, but significant. Oliver says when they met, they were even wearing the same kind of glasses.

EVANS OLIVER: We kind of looked alike to me, and I'm like, yeah, this might be a possibility here.

DIRKS: She knows her genetic connection to Craig is likely the result of sexual violence. But Oliver says she appreciates Craig's apology.

EVANS OLIVER: He did what he felt like he needed to do at that time. And if that is what he could do, great. Thank you. But what about the other Craig Woodsons of the world? You know, where is that?

DIRKS: Oliver points out that slavery's aftershocks are still shaping and shaking us. Is the apology of one man enough to heal history? Craig doesn't think so.

C WOODSON: You can't really apologize for something so horrible.

DIRKS: He says, looking back, he knows the apology was more for him than it was for the Black Woodsons.

C WOODSON: What you can do is show up.

DIRKS: The closest answer he's found to healing the past is to show up in the present - for Brett, for his mom. I asked Brett if Craig showing up was a kind of reparations, but he says it's not like that. Craig's just family.

WOODSON BAILEY: I guess, in a way, it depends on your perspective on it. It could be kind of reparations, whether it's, like, intentional or unintentional.

DIRKS: Making their relationship only about repairing the past takes away from the very real connection they've built in this moment. Brett says he doesn't want money or anything like that from Craig. I asked Craig about money. After all, his family profited off the violently forced labor of Brett's ancestors. Craig told me he had just put Brett in his will. He said it was something that should have happened a long time ago.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.