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A Biography of Carter G. Woodson

Father of Black History

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Who was the father of black history? Carter Godwin Woodson created the field of African-American history at the turn of the twentieth century. Born on December 19, 1875, Woodson was the son of two former slaves who had nine children; Woodson was the seventh. He rose from these modest origins to become a respected historian and is known today as the father of black history.

Childhood

Woodson's parents owned a 10-acre tobacco farm near the James River in Virginia, and their children had to spend most of their days doing farm work to help the family survive. This wasn't an unusual situation for farm families in late 19th-century America, but it did mean that young Woodson had little time to pursue his studies.

Two of his uncles ran a schoolroom that met five months out of the year, and Woodson attended when he could. He learned to read using the Bible and his father's newspapers in the evening. As a teenager, he went to work in the coal mines in Nuttallberg, Virginia. During his moments off work, Woodson continued his education on his own, reading the writings of Roman philosopher Cicero and the Roman poet Virgil.

Education

When he was 20 years old, Woodson enrolled at Frederick Douglass High School in West Virginia, where he was family was now living. He graduated in a year and went on to Berea College in Kentucky and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While he was still in college, he became an educator, teaching high school and serving as principal.

After his college graduation in 1903, Woodson spent time teaching in the Philippines and also traveled, visiting the Middle East and Europe. When he returned to the states, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees in the spring of 1908. That fall, he became a doctoral student in history at Harvard University.

The Founder of African-American History

Woodson was not the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in history from Harvard; that distinction went to W.E.B. Du Bois. But when Woodson graduated in 1912, he embarked on the project of making the history of African Americans both visible and respected. Mainstream historians were white and tended towards myopia in their historical narratives; one of Woodson's professors at Harvard, Edward Channing, asserted that "the Negro had no history." Channing was not alone in this sentiment, and US history textbook and coursework emphasized political history, covering the experience white, middle-class and affluent men.

Woodson's first book was on the history of African-American education--The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, published in 1915. In his preface, he asserted both the importance and the glory of the African-American story: "the accounts of the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances read like beautiful romances of a people in an heroic age."

The same year his first book came out, Woodson took the important step of creating an organization to promote the study of African-American history and culture. It was called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). He founded it with four other African-American men; they agreed to the project during a meeting at the "Y" and envisioned an association that would promote publishing in the field but also racial harmony by improving historical knowledge. The association had an accompanying journal that still exists today--The Journal of Negro History, which began in 1916.

In 1920, Woodson became dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Howard University, and it was there he created a formal African-American history survey course. That same year he founded Associated Negro Publishers to promote African-American publishing. From Howard, he went on to West Virginia State, but in 1922 he retired from teaching and devoted himself entirely to scholarship. Woodson moved to Washington, D.C., where he erected the permanent headquarters for the ANSLH. And, Woodson continued to publish--A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The History of the Negro Church (1921) and The Negro in Our History (1922) were among these publications.

Woodson's Legacy

If Woodson had stopped there, he still would be remembered for helping to usher in the field of African-American history. But he wanted to spread knowledge of this history to African-American students, and in 1926, he hit upon an idea--a week devoted to the celebration of the achievements of African Americans. "Negro History Week," the progenitor of today's Black History Month, began the week of February 7, 1926, a week that witnessed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. African-American educators, with Woodson's encouragement, rapidly adopted the week-long study of African-American history.

Woodson spent the rest of his life studying, writing about, and promoting African-American history. He fought to keep African-American history alive at a time when white historians were downright hostile to the idea. He kept the ANSLH and its journal going, even when funding was scarce.

He died at the age of 74 in 1950. He did not live to see Brown v. Board of Education, which made segregation in schools illegal, nor did he live to see the creation of Black History Month in 1976. But his efforts to highlight the achievements of African Americans gave to the civil rights generation a deep appreciation of the heroes who had preceded them and in whose footsteps they were following--African Americans like Crispus Attucks and Harriet Tubman whose achievements are part of the standard US history narrative today, thanks to Woodson.

Sources

  • Baldwin, Neil. The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War. New York: Macmillan, 2006.
  • "Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History." Ebony. Vol. 59, no. 4 (February 2004): 20, 108-110.
  • Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene. Champaign, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 2007.
  • Woodson, Carter G. The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1915. Available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11089/pg11089.html.

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