HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — When Carla Hayden's mother was in school in the late 1930s, she and her fellow black classmates would skip school on days slavery was the topic of history class because they were ashamed. It was the only time blacks were mentioned in history books.

Now, Hayden makes it her day job to weave black history into American history as the 14th librarian of Congress, carrying on the legacy of Huntington's Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History.

Hayden, the first woman and first African-American librarian of Congress, spoke at Marshall University on Wednesday as part of the Carter G. Woodson Lyceum's Black History Month events.

"Being a descendant of people who were denied the right to read, who were punished — and I'll tell you I was planning at my swearing in to read all the laws," Hayden said. "As a librarian, I did my research. It included everything from amputation, the number of whips, people who taught slaves to read were punished. After my mom said, 'That will be a downer, Carla,' I made that point. That was the real significance of someone of color having that title."

Because slaves were denied the right to read and write, their histories were lost. Hayden herself knows little about her ancestry. Woodson's movement to celebrate and honor black history was an attempt to teach African-Americans about their history while also getting them to begin preserving it.

Hayden said Woodson has followed her throughout her professional career. Her first job was at a library named after him, and now she is in charge of the building that holds half of Woodson's life's work.

She said today the mission is to get more young people interested in their history by bringing history to life. The best example of that, she said, is the smash-hit Broadway musical "Hamilton," which tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through song and rap.

"One group of students asked me, 'Are there any more cool dudes in history?'" Hayden said. "I said there were even some 'dudettes.' We have a hook."

The success of the new superhero movie "Black Panther" is another opportunity, especially to reach black youth.

"Professor Morris' book emphasizes the discovery part," Hayden said, referring to author and Carter G. Woodson Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University Burnis Morris' book about Woodson. "There are archives and papers still waiting to be read. There are still opportunities to have and engage young people to be history detectives. They love forensics. The best thing we can do is to turn them on and let them make discoveries."

She said she has "pinch-me moments" in the library, like seeing Frederick Douglass' handwritten response to Abraham Lincoln's death and the fact the people most affected by his life were not allowed to enter the building for his viewing.

Those moments are what she wants to share with the world.

"You have that hands-on history, and that's what we need to preserve," she said.

Hayden's visit meant a lot to local librarians, who cheered for her as if she were a rock star when she entered the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center on Marshall's campus.

Hayden was scheduled to join U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Thursday on a visit to West Virginia State University and then to the Kanawha County Public Library to read to children.


Information from: The Herald-Dispatch,