Woodson, Carter G. 1875–1950
Carter G. Woodson 1875–1950
Historian, educator, editor
Carter G. Woodson is known today as “the father of black history” and is credited with laying the foundations for the wide-spread adoption of black studies in American schools. When Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, the achievements of blacks were largely ignored by professional historians. Convinced that without a recorded history, the contributions of his race would be forgotten, Woodson set out to provide a means for the study of black American heritage. With the founding of the association and later, the Journal of Negro History, Woodson offered scholars a medium for the research and publication of articles on the black experience. Negro History Week (now Black History Month), which Woodson launched in 1926, opened the study of history to the wider public, offering information needed to appreciate and understand the role of blacks in American history.
All of these efforts to popularize black history were based on Woodson’s lifelong conviction that a knowledge of history can significantly change society. By informing the American people of the achievements of blacks in the United States and Africa, he hoped not only to build self-esteem among blacks, but to lessen prejudice among whites. In a Journal of Negro History article, Woodson called prejudice “the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” He predicted, however, that “the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.”
Born the son of impoverished former slaves, Woodson’s early years were marked by an unwavering commitment to education. Forced to work on his father’s farm and later in the coal mines of West Virginia, he was largely self-taught until the age of nineteen. After graduating from West Virginia’s Douglass High School in 1896, he went to Berea College in Kentucky, then famous for its acceptance of both white and black students. He left in 1900 to act as principal of his former high school, but returned to Berea in 1901. He received his B.Litt. degree in 1903.
For the next fifteen years, Woodson divided his time between travel abroad, teaching, and the continued
Born Carter Godwin Woodson, December 9, 1875, in New Canton, Buckingham County, VA; died April 4, 1950, in Washington, DC; son of james (a farmer) and Anna Eliza (Riddle) Woodson. Education: Berea College, B.Litt, 1903; University of Chicago, B.A. 1907, M.A, 1908; Harvard University, ph.D,1912.
Douglass High School, WV, acting principal, 1900-01; school supervisor in the Philippines, c. 1905; high school teacher in Washington, DC, 1909-19; Journal of Negro History, founding editor, 1916-50; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of history and dean of School of Liberal Arts, 1919-20; West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now State College), dean of School of Liberal Arts, 1920-22; Associated Publishers Inc., founding publisher, 1921; Negro History Bulletin, founding editor, 1937.
Member: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (founding member; now called Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History).
Awards: Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1926; LL.D., Virginia State College, 1941; Carter G. Woodson Memorial Stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service, February, 1984.
study of history. For four years, he worked as a teacher and later as a school supervisor in the Philippines, and in 1906, having learned to speak French and Spanish fluently, he studied history for one semester at the Sorbonne. On his return to the United States, he attended the University of Chicago. After earning his B.A. in 1907 and his M.A. one year later, he moved on to Harvard, and later to a teaching post at a Washington D.C. high school. This position enabled him to pay for his graduate studies and to do research for his dissertation at the Library of Congress. When, in 1912, Woodson earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, he became the second black man in the United States to receive a doctorate in history.
By this time, Woodson was firmly engaged in the mission to which he would devote his life: the study and documentation of black history. In 1915, Woodson and a group of four friends sat down in a Chicago YMCA to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History or ASALH). The association was the first historical society devoted exclusively to research on the black American. It was established to encourage scholarly achievement, to sponsor research projects, and to collect and preserve records documenting the black past. At a time when few blacks were invited to participate in historical conferences, the annual meeting of the association offered black scholars an opportunity to present research papers before their peers. Even more importantly, the association began publication in 1916 of a scientific quarterly, the Journal of Negro History.
Still recognized as the most distinguished periodical in the field of black history, the Journal was innovative both in its interpretation of history and in the methods of research used to collect data. As editor for more than thirty years, Woodson encouraged scholars to seek information that had been previously ignored by mainstream historians. Quoted in a recent Journal article by Jacqueline Goggin, Lorenzo Greene recalled that “black and also white scholars turned to The Journal of Negro History if they desired to publish findings at variance with the currently accepted views of black people.” Covering a wide range of topics, the Journal led to a shift in the focus of historians from the master’s perspective to that of the slave’s. Woodson and other Journal contributors also used census data, birth and death certificates, marriage registers, letters, diaries, and oral histories to investigate the black past. Only recently has this method of research been widely adopted by historians.
A few years after founding the Journal, Woodson accepted a position at Howard University as professor of history and dean of the School of Liberal Arts. He left in 1920 to act as dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (later State College). There, Woodson organized Associated Publishers to make possible the publication of books on black culture, books he believed would not be accepted by most commercial publishing houses. During this period, he also found the time to write two books, both published in the early 1920s, The History of the Negro Church and The Negro in Our History, the latter of which was a central text of the Black movement in the 1960s and is today a widely used textbook in universities. Over the next twenty years Woodson would write more than a dozen books and numerous articles on the black experience.
Woodson retired from teaching in 1922 to concentrate on his work with the association. Obtaining the necessary funds to run the organization was always difficult, and Woodson spent much of his life struggling to keep the association afloat. During the first years of its founding, Woodson supported the association largely on his teacher’s salary. Although for a short period he obtained grants from the Rockefeller and Carnegie funds, he was forced in the 1930s—at the height of the depression—to rely almost solely on contributions from individual blacks and black organizations.
As documented in the American Historical Review, at the 1984 issue ceremony of the Carter G. Woodson commemorative stamp, Jim Finch, then the Deputy Postmaster General, remarked, “The Association was [Woodson’s] life.… To him, no task was too small or unimportant if it helped the Association. Whether he was scrubbing the office floors or taking books to the post offices for mailing to other historians, Carter G. Woodson immersed himself in the Association’s activities.” Never married, Woodson reportedly once told a colleague, “I don’t have time to marry. I’m married to my work.”
In 1926, the first Negro History Week was established. Woodson described the event “as one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association.” Expanded in 1976 to include an entire month, the national celebration is held each year during the month of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Today, school programs, exhibits, essays, and poetry contests are held during Black History Month to dramatize the achievements of blacks and to encourage black children in particular to develop pride in their history. As quoted by Lerone Bennett in Ebony, W.E.B. DuBois commented that Woodson “literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon life, thought, and action in the United States. I know of no one man who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration.”
With the establishment of Black History Month, Woodson saw a need to publish a journal more closely associated with schools and one that simplified the study of history for the average reader. Thus, in 1937, Woodson founded the Negro History Bulletin. Until his death in 1950, Woodson devoted himself to directing the association, publishing its journals, and editing the six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.
The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, Putnam, 1915.
A Century of Negro Migration, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1918.
The History of the Negro Church, Associated Publishers, 1921.
The Negro in Our History, Associated Publishers, first edition, 1922.
African Myths, Associated Publishers, 1928.
The Rural Negro, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1930.
The Miseducation of the Negro, Associated Publishers, 1933.
The African Background Outlined, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1936.
African Heroes and Heroines, Associated Publishers, 1939.
Journal of Negro History, Fall 1983.
Ebony, February 1983; February 1980.
Negro History Bulletin, January-March, 1981; October, 1982; January-March, 1984.
American Historical Review, October 1984.
—Ann M. Peters
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