Elena Sorrentino Editor-in-Chief
African American History Month is the result of a lifelong pursuit from Carter Godwin Woodson. The son of former slaves, Woodson fought hard to achieve his education, often self-teaching himself while working to help support his family. At the age of 21 he formally enrolled in Douglass High School, where he earned a diploma within two years. Over the next fifteen years, Woodson would continue his education, eventually coming out of Harvard University with his PhD in 1912 as the second African American to achieve this accomplishment. Woodson realized the lack of recognition that African American accomplishments achieved, both within academia and within society, and set out to highlight the important impacts of these overlooked individuals. According to the official government site on African American History Month, Woodson “believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice.”
“His hopes to raise awareness of African Americans’ contributions to civilization was realized when he and the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), conceived and announced Negro History Week in 1925. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” the site continues. This week persisted and Woodson’s desires were heard, as educators around the country recognized the week and used it to inform their students on the many accomplishments of African Americans throughout history. In 1970, educators and students at Kent State University proposed extending the week into a month, an idea that spread across the country. This was made official by President Gerald Ford during the bicentennial.
Due to the efforts of these hardworking individuals, every February we celebrate African American History Month and reflect on the important work of heroes such as Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglas, and Harriet Tubman.
However, it is equally important to consider the heroes who worked directly within our community. One of the most influential leaders that helped shape Eastern into what it is today was President David Carter. Dr. Carter served as Eastern’s president from 1988-2006; he was the first African American president of a four-year institution of higher education in New England. Those who remember Eastern before Carter refer to it as a “two-horse town,” since he was the person who established many of the buildings that we know and still use today. Specifically, Carter was involved in the construction of the library, Goddard, the Child and Family Development Resource Center, and South Residential Village, which includes Low Rise and High Rise. Following his time at Eastern, Carter served as the Chancellor of the entire Connecticut State University System from 2006 to 2011.
Another prominent African American leader in Eastern’s history, who worked closely with Carter for over thirty years, was Arthur L. Johnson, for whom the Unity Wing is named. Johnson acted as special assistant to Dr. Carter, helping him in his endeavors to improve Eastern and create a community that is still visible today. Johnson was also active in Connecticut as a whole, working tirelessly for Civil Rights causes. In the ‘30s he marched for the desegregation of theatres in New Haven; in the ‘50s he became president of the Hartford chapter of the NAACP; and in the ‘60s he was Hartford’s first ever executive director on the Human Relations Commission.
Yet another name that students might recognize is Alvin B. Wood, for whom the Wood Support Services building was named. Wood was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Connecticut University System, and was its Vice-Chairman for a decade. In honor of his service, the Board created a scholarship in his name – the Alvin B. Wood Scholarship for Minority Students.
Similarly, the Paul E. Johnson room is also named after a man in Eastern’s history. Although he was a maintenance worker, not a president or a director, this did not stop him from being well known throughout the then pedagogy only college. Students knew him and loved him, often engaging in light-hearted games of ping-pong with him. Paul Johnson’s grandson Pedro Johnson became the Director of Public Affairs for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and continued to build his family’s relationship with the university. The Johnson room in the library emphasizes this ongoing familial connection and also displays the importance of remembering the contributions that those of color, both in leadership positions and not, have made on our campus.
All photos are courtesy of Dwight Bachman and Nick Lacy.