Woodson, Carter Godwin (1875–1950)

views updated May 17 2018


Teacher, scholar, publisher and administrator, Carter Godwin Woodson articulated ideas that are antecedents to the discipline of black studies; however, he is best known as the "father of black history."

Woodson was born in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia, to former slaves Ann Eliza (Riddle) and James Woodson. The oldest of nine children, Woodson labored on his father's farm and in the coal mines of West Virginia. Attending elementary school only a few months per year, Woodson was mostly self-taught. At age nineteen he enrolled in the Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia, where he excelled and completed the four-year curriculum in under two years.

Education and Early Career

Woodson attended Berea College in Kentucky for two years, until the institution closed its doors to blacks. Woodson took courses at the University of Chicago, returning to Berea (when blacks were readmitted) to complete his bachelor's degree in literature in 1903. Securing a position as general superintendent of education in Manila, the Philippines, for the United States Bureau of Insular Affairs, Woodson taught English, health, and agriculture. He resigned for health reasons in 1907, and traveled to Asia, North Africa, and Europe.

Woodson applied for graduate study at the University of Chicago; however, school officials would not recognize his Berea degree. This situation forced Woodson to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago, which he received in 1907. His master's thesis, completed in 1908, examined French diplomatic relations with Germany in the eighteenth century. Woodson then enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard University. After completing coursework, he sought employment in Washington, D.C., so that he might have access to the Library of Congress. While teaching courses in American history, French, Spanish, and English at local Washington, D.C., high schools, Woodson researched and completed his doctoral dissertation on secession, entitled "The Disruption in Virginia," in 1912. At the time, he was the first African American of slave ancestry and the second African American, after W. E.B. Du Bois, to receive a doctorate from Harvard.

Woodson's desire to move into the academic world met with frustration. He failed to get his dissertation published and discovered that his professional options were limited. Committed to writing black history, he published another manuscript, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915). Quickly tiring of academic politics, he sought other avenues to advance his passion for the scientific study of blacks and black history.

The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History

In 1915 Woodson, with associates Dr. George C. Hall, James E. Stamps, William B. Hartgrave, and Alexander L. Jackson, met at a downtown Chicago YMCA to establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), later changed to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Founded as a historical society devoted to the research of black America, the organization was meant to be ideologically and politically independent. There were three organizational tiers within ASNLH: branch members who paid dues; professional historians who conducted research; and a publication department. In 1916 the association established a quarterly, the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson evolved a philosophy about black history: He wanted to free black history from white intellectual bias and present blacks as active participants in history. Additionally, he wanted both black and white people to be exposed to the contributions of blacks. He believed that black history should be a part of the school curriculum. Finally, Woodson saw value in James Robinson's "new" history that asserted that history could serve social change. His passion became obsession as he worked to protect and promote the ASNLH. He never married, and friends and supporters noted that Woodson worked day and night for his association.

Financing ASNLH proved difficult as member dues were never sufficient. Woodson raised funds from white corporate philanthropists; however, frequent disagreements and accusations of "radicalism" forced him to compromise his beliefs and declare his loyalty to American capitalism.

Struggling to support the organization and himself, Woodson accepted a position as principal at the Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C., in 1918. From there he moved on to become the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Howard University. Clashing with Howard president J. Stanley Durkee, Woodson left after two years to become dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute.

After 1922, Woodson was finally able to work full-time for ASNLH, conduct research, and publish prolifically. The spread of Pan-Africanism, Garveyism, and the emergent Renaissance cultural movement were indications of heightened racial consciousness among African Americans. This climate provided support for "race men." Woodson founded Associated Publishers, Incorporated, in 1921 to produce books endorsed by the association. By 1925 the Journal of Negro History had published ten monographs and many articles. Woodson expanded his public presence by writing articles for mass consumption, including many newspaper editorials and regular contributions in the Garvey organization's Negro World.

In 1926 Woodson and his association made their indelible imprint on America and the world. He began the celebration of Negro History Weeka special commemoration of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Additionally it would celebrate the achievements of blacks throughout history. In 1976 this celebration was expanded to the widely celebrated Black History Month.

In 1933 Woodson published his most celebrated work, The Mis-Education of the Negro. This penetrating work critiqued the established school curriculum as grounded in racism and Eurocentric thought. Such education, he believed, could only result in the colonial subordination of African people in America. The often quoted passage, "When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. He will find his proper place and willstay in it" (p. viii) points to Woodson's assessment of the deleterious effect of existing schooling on the black psyche. Educated blacks would dissociate themselves from the majority of their race, and black people could never achieve unity and racial advancement with this type of education.

Concerned that the Journal of Negro History only reached a limited audience, Woodson established the Negro History Bulletin in 1937. Aimed at schools and young people, the Bulletin cost very little and used accessible language. Woodson's commitment to make black history accessible to elementary and secondary school students led him to write books for school children, which were often accompanied by study guides, chapter questions, and recommended projects.

Throughout the 1940s, the widely respected Woodson worked to popularize black history, maintain the ASNHL, and continue publication efforts. He was honored with the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People along with several honorary degrees. The U.S. Postal Service honored him with a memorial stamp in February 1984.

See also: Multicultural Education.


Goggin, Jacqueline. 1993. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Hines, Darlene C. 1986. "Carter G. Woodson, White Philanthropy and Negro Historiography." The History Teacher 19:405425.

Woodson, Carter G. 1915. The Education of the Negro prior to 1861. New York: Putnam.

Woodson, Carter G. 1998. The Mis-Education of the Negro. (1933). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Woodson, Carter G. 1971. The African Background Outlined. (1936). New York: Negro Universities Press.

William H. Watkins

Carter Godwin Woodson

views updated May 21 2018

Carter Godwin Woodson

Called the "Father of Negro History," Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950) was instrumental in the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. During his lifetime he was probably the most significant scholar promoting the history and achievements of African Americans.

Carter Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia, in 1875—ten years after the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, was written into law. His grandparents and his father, James, a tenant farmer, and mother, Anne, had been slaves. Consequently, when freedom was a reality, they were poor like thousands of newly freed families of African descent in the United States. Because of the close ties to his family and a strong sense of responsibility to them, Woodson worked throughout his early school years to help support his parents and siblings. By the time he was able to attend school, he was well past his teens.

Creative and imaginative as well as independent at an early age, Woodson taught himself by reading avidly in his spare time. As a result of his innate intelligence, personal accomplishments, and dedication to learning, he was able to complete high school. In 1903 he graduated with honors from Berea College, a unique college in the slave state of Kentucky. Founded in 1855, Berea introduced integrated education in the 19th century and thus permitted the enrollment of African Americans. Yet Kentucky had profited from the slave market and the psychology of its people could not accept racially-integrated classrooms. One year after Woodson's graduation the "Day Law" was passed, which prevented white and African American students from being in the same classroom or school community together. Integrated schooling became illegal. The pernicious "Day Law" was actually enforced for nearly half a century, a fact that was not lost on Woodson in his writings about the social customs and laws that served as obstacles to the progress of "the Negro race." He recorded these events as he pursued his interests in the study of African American history.

In 1907 and 1908, respectively, Woodson earned an undergraduate degree and his M.A. from the University of Chicago. Just four years after completing graduate training at the University of Chicago, he was awarded the doctorate from Harvard. This educational background in the country's leading universities challenged Woodson's creative imagination. He became increasingly interested in documenting for the permanent historical record the talents and accomplishments of the sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters of slaves.

Promoting African-American History

In 1916, during the height of World War I, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which Woodson had founded, issued the Journal of Negro History. This would become one of his most significant scholarly contributions for recording the backgrounds, experiences, and writings of Americans of African ancestry. He served as the sponsor and editor of the Journal of Negro History for many years. This important medium became a significant milestone in promoting the history and contributions of African Americans to the culture. African Americans themselves became aware of their own influence in the intellectual sphere and in the whole society.

In addition to establishing and publishing the Journal of Negro History, while Woodson was dean of West Virginia Collegiate Institute he served as president of Associated Publishers. The primary purpose of this innovative outlet was to publish and distribute writings by and about African Americans. When Woodson left West Virginia to continue his research, he involved himself more deeply in the work of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. It remains today as a monument to his dedication and foresight.

The broad spectrum of the life of Africans in America was of central interest to Woodson. He studied all facets of their experiences and rich cultural contributions. These included myths, patterns of migration, roles as wage earners, entrance into medicine, work in rural America, inventions and writings, and their unique history. In 1926, during the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance, he launched a movement to observe "Negro History Week." Woodson felt that an annual celebration of the achievements of the African American should occur during the month of February, since both the gifted abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln were born in that month. In the 1960s what was once only a week of recognizing the outstanding achievements of Americans of African heritage to science, literature, and the arts became transformed into "Black History Month."

The Writings of Woodson

Carter G. Woodson was one of the country's prominent historians and a prolific writer. From the moment he received the doctorate from Harvard, he initiated a career in publishing. In 1915 he wrote The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, in which he concentrated on both the obstacles and the progress characterizing the schooling of the descendants of slaves. Three years later he published A Century of Negro Migration. This was introduced in 1918, as World War I was coming to a close. The examination of patterns of migration was followed by The Negro in Our History, published in 1922. This work has been defined as "the first textbook of its kind."

Among Woodson's basic writings are those that describe patterns of migration and family composition. For example, under the auspices of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History he prepared two important documents—one on slave holding and the other on heads of families: Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, together with Absentee Ownership of Slaves in the United States in 1830 (1924) and Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 together with A Brief Treatment of The Free Negro (1925).

African Americans who had entered the professions of medicine and law during the eras of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction were of particular interest to Woodson. In 1934 Negro Universities Press published his documentation of The Negro professional man and the community, with special emphasis on the physician and the lawyer. Perhaps his most important work, and the one for which he is widely known in the late 20th century, is The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933, reprinted 1990). Woodson is remembered as a leading historian who promoted the rich intellectual and creative legacy of the African American.

Further Reading

Probably the two best books about Carter Woodson are Jacqueline Goggin, Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (1993) and Pat McKissack, Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History (1991). Woodson's writings, in addition to those listed in the text, include The African background outlined or Handbook for the study of the Negro (1936), Freedom and slavery in Appalachian America (1973), Negro makers of history (1958), Negro orators and their orations (1925), The rural Negro (1969), The history of the Negro church (2nd ed., 1922), and Historical genealogy of theWoodsons and their connections (1915). See also Doris Y. Wilkinson, "Forgotten Pioneers," Think, the newsletter of the Kentucky Humanities Council (October 1988), and Encyclopedia of Black America (3rd ed., 1988). □

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