Woodson, Carter Godwin (b. December 19, 1875, New Canton, Va.; d. April 3, 1950, Washington, D.C.) historian and educator who pioneered the research and dissemination of African American history.

One of nine children, Carter G. Woodson grew up on his family's farm in rural Virginia. His mother, a former slave who had secretly learned to read and write as a child, and two of his uncles, who received training at Freedmen's Bureau schools, tutored him and cultivated his interest in learning. In 1892, Woodson moved to Huntington, West Virginia, where he worked in coal mines.

At the age 20, Woodson enrolled at Frederick Douglass High School, the only all-black school in the area. He completed the four-year curriculum in two years although he was working to pay his tuition. Following his graduation, he obtained a teaching position in Winona, West Virginia. But in 1901, Woodson returned to his former high school to teach and later to serve as principal. Meanwhile, he intermittently attended Berea College in Kentucky, an integrated school established by abolitionists, from which he graduated in 1903.

Woodson was then hired by the U.S. War Department to teach English to Spanish-speaking students in the Philippines. While abroad, he studied Spanish and other Romance languages through University of Chicago correspondence courses. Returning to the United States following travel in Europe, he matriculated at the University of Chicago in 1907 and received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in European History in 1908. Woodson then entered the doctoral program in history at Harvard University and the next year initiated a ten-year teaching career at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He received the Ph.D. in 1912, making him only the second African American to earn a Harvard doctorate degree.

In 1915, Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH, later the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History). The organization's aim was to encourage research and writing about the black experience, to publish this writing, and to raise funds to support researchers and writers. As an extension of the ASNLH, Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History (1916), the Associated Publishers (1921), and the Negro History Bulletin (1937). The Journal of Negro History was for the general reader. The Associated Publishers generated revenue to "make possible the publication and circulation of valuable books on colored people not acceptable to most publishers." The Negro History Bulletin provided elementary and secondary teachers lessons in African American history.

Woodson always had difficulty securing funds for the ASNLH. He solicited numerous foundations without much success. Although he could have alleviated the ASNLH's financial problems by affiliating it with a university, he rejected this solution in order to maintain his own independence and control over the organization. Money came from Woodson's own meager teaching salary, the income generated by his numerous publications, and the contributions of the African American community.

One of Woodson's enduring achievements is his initiation of Black History Month. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week, a commemoration of black achievement held the second week of February, which marks the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. To encourage African Americans to celebrate Negro History Week, Woodson distributed kits containing pictures of and stories about notable African Americans. Negro History Week was changed to Black History Month in the 1960s.

Woodson was a prodigious, authoring or coauthoring 19 books on various aspects of African American history. He was one of the first scholars to consider slavery from the slaves' perspective, to compare slavery in the United States with slavery in Latin America, and to note the African cultural influences in New World slave culture.

It was his mission to dispel the racist myths about African Americans and their past that the historical writings of white scholars promulgated. He asserted, "If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

Perhaps more than any other person, Woodson helped African American history develop into a widely recognized and respected academic discipline. It was his faith 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."

 

Contributed By:

Aaron Myers