Carter G. WoodsonJun 6th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Education
1875 – 1950 Carter Godwin Woodson applied a ferocious intellect and a passion for truth to create the field of Black history, and endow it with academic rigor. His commitment to preserving and promulgating the social, cultural, and factual record of African American achievement was unswerving throughout a long and distinguished career, which was aptly summarized in his own words: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Diligence and Perseverance
Woodson was born in 1875 to two recently freed slaves, James Henry Woodson and Anne Eliza (Riddle), in New Canton, Virginia. The family was poor, and struggled to get by even with the help of Woodson and his eight younger siblings. The typical school term for Blacks at that time was only four or five months per year, and Woodson had difficulty finding time for even that much study. He nevertheless achieved enough by diligence and self-study to graduate from high school in Huntington, West Virginia at the age of 20, less than two years after entering at age 18. Woodson received a Bachelor of Literature degree with honors from Berea College in Kentucky, and then spent the years 1903 to 1907 as a school supervisor in the Philippines. His international experience included travel throughout Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and history studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris where he became fluent in French.
Returning to the U.S., Woodson enrolled at the University of Chicago where he earned a Masters degree in History in 1908 through correspondence courses and summer and autumn sessions. Enrolling at Harvard University thereafter, he devoted several years to research and study in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress, eventually earning his Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1912. His published doctoral thesis showed the beginnings of his pioneering approach to history as more than a mere collection of facts. Woodson understood at a profound and personal level that a real vital history of a people involved culture, circumstance, and social conditions: “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.”
As a natural extension of this approach, he was a leading force in establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and its associated quarterly, “The Journal of Negro History,” which is still published today as “The Journal of African American History.” From 1919 to 1920, Woodson served as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Head of the Graduate Faculty at Howard University. Woodson created and advocated the concept of Negro History Week, which was successfully established in 1926 and which became today’s Black History Month.
Interests and Activism
A sense of social activism was another direct consequence of his academic work. As part of a brief affiliation with the newly formed NAACP, Woodson recommended such radical steps (for that time) as “…diverting patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike.” In a telling statement in his 1933 book, The Miseducation of the Negro linking his interests and activism, Woodson said: “When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.” During this period, he became acquainted with Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and other prominent intellectuals and activists, and became a regular contributor to Garvey’s publication “Negro World.” Among other important results of his painstaking research, Woodson concluded that Blacks were the originators of stringed musical instruments, were responsible for the concept of trial by jury and were the first to domesticate animals.
Woodson died on April 3, 1950. While he himself hoped that Negro History Week would some day be unnecessary, his legacy is an enduring appreciation of the importance of Black history, and its legitimacy as a serious academic discipline. He also left behind such important published works as “The Negro in Our History,” “The History of the Negro Church,” and most famously The Miseducation of the Negro, in addition to more than 30 other books, more than 100 published articles, and 125 book reviews. The NAACP awarded Woodson its distinguished Spingarn Medal in 1926, honoring outstanding Black Americans. The National Council for the Social Studies established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards in 1974. Woodson literally dedicated his life to his mission, having said: “I don’t have time to marry. I’m married to my work.” And while he left no children to survive him, he was literally the Father of Black History.