Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a Harvard professor, president of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) and one of the nation’s preeminent black history scholars, is also the granddaughter of a slave. Ahead of her time in Richmond for ASALH’s 101st annual conference, she shares details about her family’s roots, which are deeply entwined in Richmond, and how ASALH has preserved and promoted black history from its conception.
Richmond magazine: The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915. The organization created Black History Month. How else has it contributed to the preservation of black history in America?
Higginbotham: When Dr. Woodson founded ASALH, he was only three years out of receiving his PhD at Harvard; he was only the second black person in history to receive a Ph.D. [W.E.B. DuBois was the first]. He was dealing with a prominent historical interpretation that said, slaves were happy, slavery prepared blacks for trades, that reconstruction was a terrible mistake [which was when blacks received the right to vote and to be citizens]. So he’s coming out of school realizing that history had to do more than write books; it had to organize to tell a whole, truthful story. So he started a movement, bringing people together – not just African-Americans, although they were the majority – to recognize how important black people’s contributions have been to American society.
On Jan. 1, 1916, he started the Journal of Negro History, which published facts about American black people. It was scholarship and research [which was] not based on prejudice. It was digging into historical archives and papers that would let the world know that black people had made a big contribution to American history. He published the work of white and black scholars in it. At that time, if you were writing about black people, [whether] you were white or black, there was really no venue that was open to publishing that work. So the journal was a venue for getting out information about black Americans. Woodson said something to the effect of, “We should know about George Washington, but we should also know about the 3,000 black soldiers who aided him in the fight for this country.” The idea was to make it a scholarly enterprise, making it the subject of books, the subject of articles, the basis of college courses and public school lessons.
While building up ASALH, Dr. Woodson also created the Associated Publishers, and founded it in the 1920s. It was a way to get works by black people out to the general public. [Woodson’s highly influential book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” was originally published in 1933 under Associated Publishers; the book is the inspiration for several notable academic and popular works, including the Grammy-winning 1998 album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”]
RM: I understand that your family roots are here in Richmond. Tell me about that legacy.
Higginbotham: My grandfather, Walter Henderson Brooks, was born in Richmond in 1851 to Albert Royal Brooks and Lucy Goode Brooks. Albert Royal Brooks sat on the petit jury that was formed to try Jefferson Davis for treason, although circumstances turned out in such a way that the trial never occurred. [Learn more about Albert Royal Brooks.] His life, both in slavery and freedom, is very interesting. This is true also of his wife, my great-grandmother, Lucy Goode Brooks. After the Civil War, she led the effort to found the Friends' Asylum for Colored Orphans. A marker now stands in Richmond for that effort. [Learn more about Lucy Goode Brooks.] When we talk about the war, we rarely think about what happened to the children. We think about the men whose lives were lost, the bloodshed, the burning of cities … but what about the children, who lost one or both parents? My great-grandmother did think about the children; she saw the black kids without a home, and her founding the orphanage has always been a moving story for me.
My great-grandparents had several children, one of whom was my grandfather, Walter Henderson Brooks. He married Evalin Holmes – I’m named after her, although the spelling was changed. She was called Eva, and was the adopted daughter of James Henry Holmes, the first black minister of the African Baptist Church in Richmond, who married her mother Maria Holmes, while Eva was a child.
RM: Were you raised in Richmond?
Higginbotham: I grew up in Washington, D.C., and never lived in Richmond.
RM: How did you become so fascinated by black history?
Higginbotham: My father, Albert M.D. Brooks, was named for his father and worked with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, so I grew up going to ASALH meetings and to Woodson’s home. My father was editor of the Negro History Bulletin [now Black History Bulletin], an ASALH product sent out to secondary schools as a way for teachers and students to learn black history. So the bug bit me very early.
RM: Why was it important for the ASALH conference to be held in Richmond this year, and what can Richmonders learn from it?
Higginbotham: The history of African-Americans is deeply entwined in Richmond. You can get a rich experience and a deeper understanding of our country from attending the conference looking at these places, these spaces on hallowed ground, that [African-Americans’] lives touched. Richmond is wonderful for that, because these places of history and legacy are still there.