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Summary Article: Woodson, Carter G. (1875-1950)
from Encyclopedia of African American Education

During the first half of the 20th century, Carter Godwin Woodson, “The Father of Black History,” laid the foundation for the rigorous study and popularization of African American history. A committed educational reformer and forerunner of the interwar Intercultural Educational Movement, Woodson was the central figure in the early African American history movement that lasted from the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 until his's death in 1950. Not only was Woodson a prolific scholar, but he also systematically democratized, popularized, and legitimized the study of African American history in U.S. educational institutions and popular culture during the era of Jim Crow segregation.

Before his sudden death on April 3, 1950, Woodson accomplished a great deal and wore many different hats. He served as a high school teacher and college professor; he earned a doctoral degree in history from Harvard; he produced an important body of scholarship; he founded the first major organization and scholarly journal devoted to promoting, documenting, and studying African American history; he mentored many professionally and nonprofessionally trained African American scholars; he joined and/or supported organizations like the Committee of 200, the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Friends of Negro Freedom, the New Negro Alliance, and the National Negro Business League; and he worked tirelessly as a leader, activist, and spokesperson for African American advancement.

Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia, toward the end of the Reconstruction era, on December 19, 1875. Woodson's parents, James Henry and Anne Eliza (Riddle), had been formerly enslaved, and they shared with him and their other children firsthand histories of life during enslavement. As an adult, Woodson recalled that his parents instilled within their children a respect for education and the philosophy of self-determination and character building. A year before Woodson's birth, his parents had settled in New Canton, Virginia, buying a farm of 21 acres. Woodson grew up on his parents' farm and attended school for only 4 months out of the year. He worked on the family farm until he was about 15 and then secured a job as a farm laborer and a jack-of-all-trades in Buckingham County, Virginia. Two years later, Woodson moved to Fayette County, West Virginia, to work in the coal mines. In his late sixties, looking back on his life, Woodson described this period as very significant to his intellectual development. In the coal mines, he met an African American Civil War veteran named Oliver Jones, who allowed many of the coal miners to use his home as an intellectual movement center. Being the sole literate worker of the group, Woodson read newspapers to his coworkers. Jones also had a valuable library of books containing classic works by pioneering African American scholars.

At the age of 20, Woodson returned to West Virginia and attended Frederick Douglass High School. It took him only 2 years to finish the requirements for graduation. In the fall of 1897, he enrolled at Berea College, in Kentucky. It took him more than 5 years to receive a BA from Berea. For financial reasons, he left Berea in the 1897-1898 academic year. From 1898 until 1900, he worked as a teacher for a school in Winona, West Virginia, where he educated the children of African American miners. From 1900 until 1903, he worked at his high school alma mater, teaching history and serving as the principal. Woodson received a bachelor's degree in literature from Berea in 1903. From mid-December 1903 until early February 1907, Woodson traveled abroad extensively. For roughly 5 years, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department, he was stationed in the Philippines “to train the Filipinos to govern themselves,” teaching English, health, and agricultural classes. After leaving the Philippines in early 1907, Woodson briefly traveled around the world and spent roughly half a year in Europe. He briefly attended the Sorbonne.

After returning from Europe, Woodson enrolled in the University of Chicago and earned an MA degree in history, romance languages, and literature in the summer of 1908. Woodson then enrolled in Harvard University as a doctoral student. In 1909, he left Cambridge and settled down in the Washington, D.C., area, teaching French, Spanish, English, and history at the prestigious M Street High School. Woodson finished his course-work in less than 2 years and submitted the first draft of his dissertation in the spring of 1910. His committee, consisting of Albert Bushnell Hart, Edward Channing, and Charles Haskins, made many suggestions for revision. In April 1912, Woodson completed his PhD dissertation, The Disruption of Virginia.

Three years later, in 1915, at the age of 40, Woodson published his first monograph, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. On September 9, 1915, Woodson cofounded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in Chicago with George Cleveland Hall, James E. Stamps, and Alexander L. Jackson. The purpose of the organization was to collect records pertaining to African Americans' past and disseminate the “truth” regarding African American history. The ASNLH was one of the first scholarly organizations of its kind to be founded early during the era of Jim Crow segregation. Early on, the association developed intimate connections to the heart of African American communities. Every year during Woodson's lifetime, the association meetings were held in African American churches, community centers, colleges and universities, and high school auditoriums throughout the country. Churches were most often used because they could accommodate many people and they constituted the centers of the African American community.

In 1916, Woodson launched the first issue of the Journal of Negro History. By 1919, the Journal reached approximately 4,000 people, and there were 1,648 subscribers. While a teacher at Armstrong Manual Training High School, Woodson published his second major monograph, A Century of Negro Migration (1918). Early on in the association's history, Woodson sought to popularize and democratize the study of African American history by gaining a mass following. By 1919, he began systematically organizing “Negro History Clubs.”

While Woodson was laying the foundations for the early African American history movement, he was also active as a teacher of history. In 1918, Woodson became the principal of Armstrong Manual Training School, in Washington, D.C., where he advocated vocational and classical education and introduced an adult education program. From 1919 until 1920, he served as the dean of Howard University's School of Liberal Arts. He also introduced and taught black history at Howard. From 1920 until 1922, he served as a dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In 1921, he published his third major monograph, The History of the Negro Church.

During the early 1920s, Woodson wore many hats. While an educator, he directed the ASNLH, edited a journal, and managed the Associated Publishers (founded in 1921). In 1922, Woodson published The Negro in Our History, the first major African American history textbook and Woodson's most popular book. By March 1941, Woodson noted that 40,000 copies of his text had been sold. By 1922, Woodson also decided to devote his life to the association. He resigned from his position at West Virginia Collegiate Institute and moved to Washington, D.C., in order to commit himself to the ASNLH.

One of Woodson's most important contributions to the early African American history movement was his transformation of African American history into a practical and popular medium for uplifting African Americans and challenging racial prejudice. He revolutionized the U.S. historical profession, in part, by popularizing the study of African American history. Within the ranks of the association, there were many different groups of people, including professionally trained scholars, schoolteachers, African American history enthusiasts, African American race leaders and representatives, and young African Americans. In adopting this approach, he did not de-emphasize the role of rigorous scholarship in the “life-and-death struggle” for African American liberation. On the other hand, he maintained that in addition to being founded on rigorous research, the study and dissemination of African American history should extend to the working class and youth. Woodson reasoned that the knowledge of African American history was a fundamentally practical, though nonmaterial, way in which African American people could become liberated and empowered.

Between 1915 and 1950 (increasingly more by the 1920s), he strove to enlighten the African American community, popularizing African American history in a variety of ways. He extended himself as a resource and lecturer to African American communities throughout the country. He opened the doors of the association to lay historians, ministers, secondary and elementary schoolteachers, businessmen, and the African American community as a whole. In 1926, he initiated Negro History Week. By the early 1930s, Woodson called this celebration the “greatest educational work” of the ASNLH. With this “mass educational program,” Woodson sought to help educate and instill racial pride within African American, introduce and integrate African American history into U.S. educational institutions, dispel racist stereotypes and prejudice within White society, and inspire African American youth. Woodson routinely warned against those who sought to profit from the celebration, stressing that the children themselves be central figures in Negro History Week events.

In 1927, a year after the founding of Negro History Week, Woodson established the association's Extension Division, exposing more people to African American history through public lectures and correspondence study. The Home Study Department was necessary, in Woodson's view, because not enough teachers were qualified to teach African American youth about their history and because “various classes of citizens” needed to know their history. While the Home Study Department did not enjoy a large enrollment, the teaching staff included leading African American scholars of the interwar period. Beginning in October 1937, Woodson began publishing The Negro History Bulletin, an easy-to-read African American history magazine that was created primarily for African American youth and schoolteachers as supplements for mainstream U.S. history textbooks.

Beyond popularizing African American history, Woodson was also one of the first professionally trained African American scholars to publicly critique African American intellectuals, scholars, and professionals, as well as the historically Black colleges and universities that produced them. He was also a political commentator. His columns appeared in outlets such as the Baltimore Afro-American. A self-proclaimed supporter of Booker T. Washington, Woodson openly indicted his African American professional and academic counterparts for not contributing as much as they could to the African American struggle. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson challenged African American intellectuals to be practical and to help the less fortunate, very much as Washington had urged in My Larger Education. In his now-famous 1933 polemic, Woodson was not turning over a new stone but rather continuing his evolution as a scholar-activist and iconoclastic thinker. In this important book, Woodson's main focus was first showing how “highly educated Negroes” had misled, exploited, and hampered the livelihood of the African American masses, and how these destructive approaches could be reversed.

Woodson's scholarship did not highlight the roles of African American women, but in the 1930s, he published several key articles on African American women. After Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, African American female teachers, club women, librarians, and social activists played essential roles in popularizing the study of African American history. By the early 1920s, African American women were active in the ASNLH conferences, and at the Annual Meeting in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1936, Mary McLeod Bethune was elected president of the ASNLH “to fill the vacancy” opened by John Hope's death in February 1936. Bethune, founder of Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute, served as the president of the ASNLH until 1952.

Woodson's legacy can be measured in many ways. Not only did he found Negro History Week, which laid the foundations for what we now call Black History Month, but throughout his career, Woodson also mobilized a tight circle of younger professionally trained African American historians who, despite his hardness, apprenticed themselves to him for varying periods of time. These scholars, who were born mainly during what Logan deemed “the nadir” and took pride in calling themselves Woodson's “Boys,” often ideologically departed from their mentor, but they usually put these differences to the side in order to work with Woodson in establishing African American history as a legitimate field of study, a vital and practical source of pride for African Americans, and as a cross-cultural educational reform movement. The dialogues, interactions, and relationships among Woodson and his disciples contributed to the evolution of the African American historical enterprise during a fundamental period in its maturation. These historians in turn trained succeeding generations of African American historians who helped legitimize African American history during the dynamic Black Power era. It is no exaggeration to say that today's leading African American historians, from those who came of age during the civil rights era to those socialized during the “golden age” of hip hop, were indirectly influenced by Woodson.

During an era of overt Jim Crow segregation, Woodson espoused a worldview that dictated that he make the historical craft relevant and practical by working closely with and for the rank and file of his people. He was a committed scholar-activist, an “intellectual-activist,” or a “liberated intellectual.”

As a member of the early to mid-20th century African American professional class, he embraced a “service ethic.” For Woodson, this translated into delivering African American history to the African American masses, working class, and youth throughout the nation. From 1922 until 1950, this mission was orchestrated from his “office home” at 1538 Ninth Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Central to many 20th century African American professionals' lives, as was the case with Woodson, was service to disempowered African American people. Woodson faced many challenges while serving his clientele. Above all, he was committed to the promotion of African American history. As an underacknowl-edged contributor to the interwar Intercultural Education Movement and to the African American cultural consciousness movement that blossomed during the Black power era, he wholeheartedly believed that African American history was a vital medium of social reform, cross-cultural understanding within U.S. society, and African American identity formation and psychological liberation. He demonstrated that practical, effective African American leaders could and should emanate from the ranks of professional historians, a concept that appears to have declined following the civil rights movement and continues to challenge African American historians. Carter G. Woodson's contributions to African American education, identity formation, culture, scholarship, intellectual thought, and historiography are truly remarkable.

See also

African American Studies, Bethune, Mary Mcleod, Jim Crow, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Urban League

Further Readings
  • Dagbovie, P. G. (2007). The early Black history movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Goggin, J. (1993). Carter G. Woodson: A life in Black history. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  • Scally, S. A. (1985). Carter G. Woodson: A bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Dagbovie, Pero G.
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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