Biography of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Black Historian

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

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Dr. Carter G. Woodson (December 19, 1875–April 3, 1950) is known as the father of Black history and Black studies. He worked tirelessly to establish the field of Black American history in the early 1900s, founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and its journal and contributing numerous books and publications to the field of Black research. The son of two formerly enslaved people that worked and fought their way to freedom, Woodson did not let the persecution and obstacles he faced throughout his life stop him from becoming the esteemed, groundbreaking historian who founded Negro History Week, today known as Black History Month.

Fast Facts: Carter Woodson

  • Known For: Known as the "father" of Black history, Woodson founded Negro History Week, upon which Black History Month is founded
  • Born: December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia
  • Parents: Anne Eliza Riddle Woodson and James Henry Woodson
  • Died: April 3, 1950 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: B.A. from Berea College, B.A. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, Ph.D. from Harvard University
  • Published WorksThe Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, A Century of Negro Migration, The History of the Negro Church, The Negro in Our History, and 14 other titles
  • Awards and Honors: 1926 NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1984 U.S. Postal Service 20 cent stamp honoring him
  • Notable Quote: "Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."

Woodson's Parentage

Carter Godwin Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia to Anne Eliza Riddle and James Henry Woodson. Both of his parents were once enslaved in Buckingham County, his father and grandfather by a man named John W. Toney. James Woodson was likely the descendant of two of the enslaved people on this property, though the names of his parents remain unknown. Woodson's grandfather was granted more autonomy than the average enslaved man because he was "hired" for his carpentry skills, but he was not free. "Hired" enslaved people were sent out by their enslavers to work for pay, which went right back to their enslavers. Woodson's grandfather was said to have been "rebellious," defending himself from beatings and sometimes refusing to obey orders from his enslavers. His son, James Henry Woodson, was also a hired enslaved person that regarded himself as free. He once whipped an enslaver that attempted to whip him for using his time after work to make money for himself. After this event, James fled and joined Union troops in the area, where he fought alongside soldiers in many battles.

Woodson's mother, Anne Eliza Riddle, was the daughter of Henry and Susan Riddle, enslaved people from separate plantations. Her parents had what was referred to as an "abroad" marriage, meaning that they were enslaved by different enslavers and not allowed to live together. Susan Riddle was enslaved by a poor farmer named Thomas Henry Hudgins, and though records indicate that he did not want to, Hudgins had to sell one of the people he enslaved to make money. Not wanting to allow her mother and younger siblings to be separated, Anne Eliza volunteered herself to be sold. However, she was not sold and her mother and two brothers were sold in her place. Anne Eliza remained in Buckingham County and met James Woodson when he returned from freedom, perhaps to reunite with family, and became a sharecropper. The two were married in 1867.

Eventually, James Woodson was able to earn enough money to buy land, an accomplishment that made it possible for him to work for himself instead of an enslaver. Though they were poor, his parents lived free for the rest of their lives. Woodson has credited his parents with not only altering the course of his life by obtaining freedom for themselves but also instilling in him qualities such as perseverance, determination, and courage. His father demonstrated the importance of working hard for your freedom and rights and his mother showed selflessness and strength during and after her enslavement.

Carter Woodson side profile

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Early Life

Woodson's parents owned a 10-acre tobacco farm near the James River in Virginia and their children spent 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. He and his brother attended a school for four months out of the year that was taught by their uncles, John Morton Riddle and James Buchanon Riddle. The Freedmen's Bureau, an agency created near the end of the Civil War to facilitate the inclusion of formerly enslaved Black Americans into society and provide relief to Americans affected by the war, established this one-room schoolhouse.

Woodson learned to read using the Bible in school and his father's newspapers, when the family could afford to purchase them, in the evening. His father could not read or write, but he taught Woodson the importance of pride, integrity, and standing up for oneself against the efforts of White people to control and belittle them because they were Black. During his free time, Woodson often read, studying the writings of Roman philosopher Cicero and the Roman poet Virgil. As a teenager, he worked on other farms to earn money for his family, eventually going with his brothers to work in coal mines in West Virginia in 1892 when he was 17. Between 1890 and 1910, many Black Americans sought work in West Virginia, a state that was rapidly industrializing, especially the industry of coal production, and was slightly less racially oppressive than the deep south. At this time, Black Americans were barred from many professions because of their race but able to work as coal miners, which was dangerous and strenuous work, and coal companies gladly hired Black Americans because they could get away with paying them less than White Americans.

Oliver Jones' Tearoom

While working as a coal miner, Woodson spent much of his time at a gathering place for Black miners owned by a fellow Black miner named Oliver Jones. Jones, an intelligent Civil War veteran, opened his home as a safe space for Black Americans to read and have discussions about everything from Black rights and politics to stories about the war. Equality was a common topic.

Because most tearooms, lounges, and restaurants were owned by White Americans that charged high prices Black Americans, who were often given lower-paying jobs than White Americans, could rarely afford, Jones proved to be an important part of Woodson's life. Jones encouraged Woodson to study the many books and newspapers he kept in his home—many of which covered topics in Black history—in exchange for free refreshments, and Woodson began to realize his passion for research, particularly researching the history of his people. Books that Jones encouraged Woodson to read included Men of Mark by William J. Simmons; Black Phalanx by J. T. Wilson; and Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion by George Washington Williams. Woodson was especially fascinated with accounts of Black Americans who had served in the war, tax law, and populist teachings by the likes of William Jennings Bryan and Thomas E. Watson. In Woodson's own words, the result of Jones' insistence was the following:

"I learned so much myself because of the much more extensive reading required by him than I probably would have undertaken for my own benefit."

Education

When he was 20 years old, Woodson enrolled at Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia, where his family then lived. This was the only Black high school in the area and he was again instructed by his uncles as well as a cousin. He graduated in two years and went on to Berea College, an integrated university founded by abolitionist John Gregg Fee, in Kentucky in 1897. For one of the first times in his life, Woodson lived and worked with White people. He earned a Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea as well as a teaching certificate before graduating in 1903.

While he was still in college, Woodson became an educator. Woodson could not afford to go to Berea full-time and used the money he earned teaching to pay for his part-time classes. He taught at a high school in Winona, West Virginia, from 1898 to 1900. This school was for children of Black miners. In 1900, he took over his cousin's position at his alma mater, Frederick Douglass High School, where he taught history and was the principal.

After his college graduation from Berea in 1903, Woodson spent time teaching in the Philippines and also traveled, visiting the Middle East and Europe. He studied at Sorbonne University in Paris during his travels. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled at the University of Chicago and received a second bachelor's degree and a master's degree in European History in the spring of 1908. That fall, he became a doctoral student in history at Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D. in 1912.

Group of students outside of Berea College
Group of students outside of Berea College in 1899, one of the years Carter Woodson attended.

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Studying and Writing About Black History

Dr. Woodson was not the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard—that distinction went to W.E.B. Du Bois—,but he was the second, and he was also the first Black American descended from formerly enslaved people to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. When Dr. Woodson graduated in 1912, he embarked on making the history of Black Americans both visible and appreciated. Contemporary historians at the time were White and had a very narrow scope in their historical narratives, their perspectives limited either intentionally or otherwise.

Many historians regarded Black history as not worth telling, even nonexistent. In fact, one of Dr. Woodson's professors at Harvard—Edward Channing, a White man—asserted that "the negro had no history." Channing was not alone in this sentiment, and U.S. history textbooks and coursework emphasized political history that told the stories of only affluent White men. There were also numerous historians who were neither avidly against nor allies to Black Americans, and they, too, were complicit in allowing Black stories to be left out of most narratives. Even integrated institutions such as Berea were guilty of whitewashing history and preserving Black erasure. Indigenous erasure of the same magnitude was routinely taking place as well.

Dr. Woodson often addressed this issue by explaining why it was in the White community's best interest to suppress Black voices, and how they accomplished this by telling history selectively. In his own words:

"It was well understood that if by the teaching of history the white man could be further assured of his superiority and the Negro could be made to feel that he had always been a failure and that the subjection of his will to some other race is necessary the freedman, then, would still be a slave. If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself."

Essentially, Dr. Woodson argued, historians had chosen to omit Black history from the equation in an effort to suppress them and force them to endure inferior status. Dr. Woodson knew this needed to change if Black Americans were to be able to achieve equality (an ongoing fight still today). With four post-secondary degrees, he had seen how little scholarship was available on Black history, so he set out to correct this by writing about Black history himself.

Published Works

Dr. Woodson's first book, published in 1915, was on the history of Black American education titled The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. In this book, he emphasizes the importance and power of the Black American story but talks about why it has not been told. He explains that enslavers are responsible for preventing Black Americans from receiving proper education so as to more easily force them into subordination and that the perpetuation of this practice and erasure of Black history has benefited White people for centuries. The only way to fight racism then, he argues, is to educate people about all that Black people have done for society so that this race is no longer regarded as lesser. When researching this topic, Dr. Woodson mentions in the preface that he was particularly inspired by the stories he had read and heard over the years about Black Americans who had suffered extreme oppression in the pre-Civil War era:

"[T]he accounts of the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances read like beautiful romances of a people in an heroic age."

Shortly after his first book came out, Dr. Woodson also took the important step of creating an organization to promote the study of Black American history and culture. It was called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). He founded it with four other Black men, who agreed to the project during one of their regular meetings at a Black YMCA in Chicago, where Dr. Woodson had been selling his new book and conducting research. They were Alexander L. Jackson, George Cleveland Hall, James E. Stamps, and William B. Hartgrove. This group of men—which included a teacher, sociologist, physician, graduate student, and secretary—envisioned an association that would support Black scholars in publishing their work and racial harmony by improving historical knowledge. The association began an accompanying journal in 1916 that still exists today, The Journal of Negro History.

In 1920, Dr. Woodson became dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and it was there that he created a formal Black American history survey course. That same year, he founded Associated Negro Publishers to promote Black American publishing. From Howard, he went on to be the dean at West Virginia State, but he retired from teaching in 1922 and devoted himself entirely to scholarship. Dr. Woodson moved back to Washington, D.C., and erected the permanent headquarters for the ASNLH. He also published several of his key works including A Century of Negro Migration (1918), which details the migration of Black Americans from southern U.S. states to the north; The History of the Negro Church (1921), which describes how Black churches have come to be and have developed over time; and The Negro in Our History (1922), which summarizes the contributions Black people have made to America throughout history.

Negro History Week

If Dr. Woodson had stopped there, he would still be remembered for helping to usher in the field of Black American history. But he wanted to spread knowledge of Black history to students of all ages, and not just Black students. In 1926, he had the idea of devoting a week to the celebration of achievements by Black Americans, achievements that were overlooked because they were not seen as valuable or important by many White Americans. Dr. Woodson understood that this needed to be changed urgently, so he came up with the idea of "Negro History Week."

"Negro History Week," the progenitor of today's Black History Month, was first celebrated the week of Feb. 7, 1926. By no accident, this week included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Black educators, with Woodson's encouragement, rapidly adopted the week-long study of Black American history. Soon, integrated schools followed suit, and eventually, Black History Month was made a national observance by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

It was Dr. Woodson's belief that setting aside a week for studying Black history would give this pursuit enough of a platform that it would make its way into school curriculums across the country and bring light to the many ways that Black Americans have shaped society. However, he hoped that, as representing Black Americans equally in history became normalized, it would not always be necessary to devote a week to this cause. And though the nation still has a long way to go, his vision is being realized more and more every year. Black History Month is still celebrated today—each year, leaders and activists try to work against centuries of discrimination and fight for Black rights by praising, supporting, and empowering the Black community on a political, educational, and social scale throughout the month of February.

Criticisms of Black History Month

Black History Month is well-received by many, but it is also widely criticized. Critics argue that the purpose of the holiday has been lost. For one, Dr. Woodson's goal when creating Negro History Week was not to put Black history on a pedestal all its own but to create a means by which the teaching of Black history could be incorporated into the teaching of American history, as it should have been from the beginning. He believed, after all, that history should be one story told from multiple perspectives, not distinct stories told from one perspective each (i.e. Black and White history). Black History Month as it is celebrated today is seen by some as a time to get teaching Black history "out of the way" before returning to the teaching of American, or in most cases White, history. Unfortunately, this is how many schools treat the holiday.

Another issue with this celebration is how commercialized it has become, to the point where the message of Black pride can be lost in celebrity appearances and flashy events and some Americans feel that they have done enough in the fight for racial equality simply by participating in a few Black History Month celebrations. Black History Month also brings many protests and demonstrations, but Dr. Woodson was trying to create a space for celebration. Though he felt protesting was important and engaged in it often, he did not want the lens of Black history to be blurred by the turbulence that came from such forms of activism. For these reasons and several others, not all Black scholars and historians embrace the concept of Black History Month, and many speculate that Dr. Woodson wouldn't either.

President Reagan speaking to a crowd with new Carter G. Woodson stamp off to the side
President Reagan unveiling U.S. Postal Service stamp to honor Carter G. Woodson during Black History Month in 1984.

Mark Reinstein / Getty Images

Later Life and Death

Dr. Woodson spent the rest of his life studying, writing about, and promoting the study of Black history. He fought to keep Black history alive at a time when most White historians were actively working to bury it and White Americans were ambivalent or hostile toward Black Americans. He kept the ASNLH and its journal going, even when funding was scarce. In 1937, he published the first issue of the Negro History Bulletin, a newsletter with resources—such as journal entries by enslaved people and research articles by Black scholars—that teachers could use to teach Black history. Now the Black History Bulletin, this peer-reviewed monthly publication is still live today.

Dr. Woodson died at his home of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., at the age of 74 on April 3, 1950. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Maryland.

Legacy

Dr. Woodson did not live to see Brown v. Board of Education rule school segregation unconstitutional, nor did he live to see the creation of Black History Month in 1976. But his brainchild, Negro History Week, is the direct predecessor of this significant educational advance. His efforts to highlight the achievements of Black Americans had a profound and lasting impact on the civil rights movement: he gave generations that came after him a deep appreciation of the heroes who had preceded them and in whose footsteps they were following. The achievements of Black Americans like Crispus Attucks, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and many others are now part of the standard U.S. history narrative, thanks to Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Countless scholars have followed in Dr. Woodson's footsteps and continued his work, and now there is an extensive body of research available on the topic of Black history. Just a few notable historians specializing in Black history are Mary Frances Berry, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and John Hope Franklin, and they all share Dr. Woodson's philosophy that the social aspects of historical retellings are just as important—if not more so—than the facts and figures associated with events. Likewise, school curriculums are being developed to not only include Black history lessons but to teach about the lives of Black Americans in a way that gives historical figures the complexity they are due and the recognition they deserve.

Dr. Woodson's legacy is honored with numerous schools, parks, and buildings across the country bearing his name. Dr. Woodson was also remembered with a U.S. Postal Service stamp by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and his Washington, D.C., home is now a national historic site. Many of his publications and foundations are still operational, and the Father of Black History will not soon be forgotten. Dr. Woodson understood that the glass ceiling preventing Black Americans from being fully recognized as citizens of society needed to be shattered, and he dedicated his life to working toward that by telling their stories.

Carter G. Woodson's Washington, D.C. home view from the street
The Carter G. Woodson home, a national historic site in Washington, D.C.

Ted Eytan / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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