Carter G. Woodson
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Carter Godwin Woodson (b. December 19, 1875, New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia — d. April 3, 1950, Washington, D.C.) was an African American historian, author, journalist and the founder of Black History Month. He is considered the first to conduct a scholarly effort to popularize the value of Black History. He recognized and acted upon the importance of a people having an awareness and knowledge of their contributions to humanity and left behind an impressive legacy. He was a member of the first black fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and a member of Omega Psi Phi as well.
Woodson was the son of former slaves James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. His father had helped the Union soldiers during the Civil War, and afterwards moved his family to West Virginia when he heard they were building a high school for blacks in Huntington. Coming from a large, poor family, Carter could not regularly attend such schools, but through self-instruction he was able to master the fundamentals of common school subjects by the time he was 17.
Ambitious for more education Woodson went to Fayette County to earn a living as a miner in the coal fields, but was only able to devote a few months each year to his schooling. In 1895 at the age of twenty, Carter entered Douglass High School where he received his diploma in less than two years. From 1897 to 1900, Carter G. Woodson began teaching in Fayette County. In 1900, he became the principal of Douglass High School. Woodson finally received his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky. From 1903 to 1907 he was a school supervisor in the Philippines. He then attended the University of Chicago where he received his M.A. in 1908, and in 1912 he received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.
In 1915, Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
By this time convinced that the role of his own people in American history and in the history of other cultures was being either ignored or misrepresented among scholars, Woodson realized the need for special research into the neglected past of the Negro. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded September 9, 1915, in Chicago, was the result of this conviction. In the same year appeared one of his most scholarly books, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. Other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The History of the Negro Church (1927), and The Negro in Our History, the last in numerous editions and revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson’s death in 1950. In January 1916 Woodson began the publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History, which, despite depressions, loss of support from foundations and two World Wars, has never missed an issue. In 2002 it was renamed the Journal of African-American History, and continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American History (ASAAH).
During this time Woodson became affiliated with the recently organized Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP, and its Chairman, Archibald Grimke. On January 28, 1915, he wrote a letter to Grimke expressing his dissatisfaction with the way things were going. Woodson made two proposals in this letter:
That the branch secure an office for a center to which persons may report whatever concerns the Negro race may have, and from which the Association may extend its operations into every part of the city; That a canvasser be appointed to enlist members and obtain subscriptions for The Crisis, the NAACP publication edited by W.E.B. DuBois. Dr. Woodson then added the daring proposal of "diverting patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike." He wrote that he would cooperate as one of the twenty-five effective canvassers, adding that he would pay the rent for the office for one month. The NAACP did not welcome Dr. Woodson’s ideas.
In a letter dated March 18, 1915, in response to a letter from Grimke regarding his proposals, Woodson wrote,
I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me. Apparently, this difference of opinion with Grimke contributed to the termination of Woodson’s short-lived affiliation with the NAACP.
On September 9, 1915, Dr. Woodson met in Chicago with Alexander L. Jackson, Executive Secretary of the new Negro YMCA branch. In addition to Woodson and Jackson, three other men were present: George C. Hall, W. B. Hargrove, and J. E. Stamps. At this meeting they formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and appointed Dr. Woodson Executive Director, a post he held until his death. The early years of the Association were difficult times, but it did not deter Woodson because on January 1, 1916, he alone began to publish the Journal of Negro History, a quarterly publication. He distributed the first edition on his own initiative. The publishing of the Journal coincided with the year of the arrival of Marcus Garvey. In 1926, Woodson single-handedly pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week", the second week in February, which has since been extended to the entire month of February. Because of Woodson’s belief in self-reliance and racial respect, it is only natural that the paths of Dr. Woodson and the Hon. Marcus Garvey would cross; their views were very similar. Woodson became a regular columnist for Garvey’s weekly Negro World.
Dr. Woodson’s political activism placed him at the center of activity and was in contact with many black intellectuals and activists between the 1920s and 1940s. He corresponded with individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, John E. Bruce, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Hubert H. Harrison, and T. Thomas Fortune among others. Even with the monumental duties connected with the Association, Woodson still found time to write extensive and scholarly works such as The History of the Negro Church (1922), The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), and many other books which continue to have wide readership today.
He was never one to shy away from a controversial subject, & utilized the pages of Negro World to contribute to various fashionable debates. One of these debates was on West Indian-African American relations. Woodson summarized that "the West Indian Negro is free." He felt that West Indian societies had been more successful at properly dedicating the necessary amounts of time & resources needed to realisticly educate and genuinely emancipate people. These opinions were the result of observing and approving of the efforts on the part of the West Indians to inject Black materials into their school curricula.
Woodson was often ostracized by many African-American educators and intellectuals of the time because of his insistence on inviting special attention to one’s race. At the time, these educators felt that it was wrong to teach or understand African-American history as in any way separate from a general (usually Eurocentric) view of American history. According to these educators, "Negroes" were simply Americans, darker skinned, but with no history a part from that of any other. Thus Woodson’s efforts to get Black culture and history into the curricula of institutions (even Historically Black ones) were often unsuccessful.
Woodson remained focused on his work throughout his life, never being deterred by the efforts of others. Many see him as a man of vision and understanding. Although Dr. Woodson was among the ranks of the educated few, he did not feel particularly sentimental to elite educational institutions. The Association which he started in 1915 remains today, with the Journal of African American History still published as a quarterly journal.
Dr. Woodson’s other far-reaching activities includes the organization in 1920 of the Associated Publishers, the oldest African American publishing company in the United States, which made possible the publication of books concerning blacks which were not at that time acceptable to many publishers; the establishment of Negro History Week in 1926 (now known as Black History Month); and the initial publication of the Negro History Bulletin, published continuously by the Association since 1937, and originally created for teachers in elementary and high school grades. Woodson also influenced the direction and subsidizing of research in African American history by the Association, and wrote numerous articles, monographs and books on Blacks. The Negro in Our History reached its eleventh edition in 1966, when it had sold more than 90,000 copies.
Dr. Woodson’s most cherished ambition, a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana, lay incomplete at the time of his death on April 3, 1950 at the age of 74. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland-Silver Hill, Maryland.
In 1992, the Library of Congress held an exhibition entitled "Moving Back Barriers: The Legacy of Carter G. Woodson". Woodson donated 5,000 items from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to the Library. Dorothy Porter Wesley stated that "Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA". He would teasingly decline her dinner invitations saying, "No, you are trying to marry me off. I am married to my work".
His Washington, D.C. home has been preserved as the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.