Dr. Carter G. Woodson
Woodson Roadside Marker, West Virginia
Bronze Statue of Woodson, West Virginia
Woodson, The Scholar
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Carter G. Woodson
“Historian, author, journalist and the Father of Black History Month”
When Carter G. Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History, he was acting upon the importance of the “Negro” having an awareness and knowledge of his contributions to humanity and the impressive legacy his ancestors had wrought–at that time, just barely up from slavery, the “Negro” was relegated to being a footnote in history. He noted that all of the information the “Negro” was learning about himself came from others, and it portrayed a negative and dubious place in history. Woodson sought to change that. He saw the conditions and heard the cries of the “Negro” long before the voice of Dr. John E. Moseley stated, “The lack of adequate hospital facilities is perhaps the single greatest deterrent to the acquisition of adequate medical care by the Negro ….. It operates in devious ways to rob the patient of adequate diagnosis and treatment and to stifle the ambition and scientific advance of the physician.” Woodson was one of the first self-educated historians who placed a significant value on the study and the history of the Black man, and his proper role on the stage of human history. And for many years, he was the lone voice fighting for “Negro” historiography.
The son of former slaves, James and Elizae Riddle Woodson, young Woodson was born in December 1875, in New Canton, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy. Though he was unable to attend regular schooling or attain a formal education early in his life, by 17 he had mastered the foundation of basic education. At 20, Woodson enrolled in Douglass High School where he received his high school diploma and later on became the principal. After earning his Bachelor’s degree at Berea College, Kentucky, he became a school supervisor in the Philippines. When Woodson returned to the United States, he attended the University of Chicago and Harvard University where he received his Masters degree in 1908 and his Ph.D. in 1912, respectively. He did the research for his doctoral dissertation, “The Disruption of Virginia,” at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Afterwards he studied briefly at the Sorbonne University in Paris. When Woodson returned, he joined the faculty at Howard University as a professor, eventually becoming the dean of Liberal Arts and head of the graduate faculty. In 1915, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) to focus attention on Black people’s contribution to civilization and to further the newly opened field of Black Studies that had too long been neglected. (The following year, Woodson founded and edited the Journal of Negro History, and it remained an important historical medium for more than 30 years, despite the Great Depression, and the loss of funding and support from foundations). He traveled extensively in Asia, Egypt and other parts of Africa, and Europe to obtain a balanced view of his findings, his historiographical and academic research.
In 1915, Woodson also published “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861” and in 1918, “A Century of Negro Migration.” Having published several scholarly works, books, newspapers and a quarterly journal, he joined the staff at West Virginia State College. Realizing that his undertaking would need tremendous resources and manpower, he reached out to the NAACP, the most prominent organization working to gain civil rights for the “Negro.” Woodson believed that working with the NAACP would enhance his vision and attain a degree of respectability and acceptability for endeavors. So he wrote a letter to its chairman, Archibald Grimke, voicing his dissatisfaction with the organization and outlining two proposals: (1) that the NAACP broadened its outreach to encompass the totality of the problems facing the “Negro” throughout the country and (2) to select a body/committee to elicit subscriptions for the organization’s magazine “The Crisis.” The NAACP rejected Woodson’s proposals.
The organization feared that such ideas may result in negative reactions from its supporters and may subject the NAACP to lawsuits, especially from the business community (White liberals), W.E.B. DuBois tactfully referred to the rejection as “diverting patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike. Woodson responded: “I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a lawsuit. 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.” That ended Woodson’s affiliation with the NAACP.
By 1922, Woodson had accumulated a body of work that focused on the chasm between historical truths and existing fallacies about the “Negro,” not only in America but throughout the known world–the results of his extensive travels. He retired from teaching and devoted his full time to research and writing because he was convinced that American history had ignored the valid contributions of non-European cultures and peoples in general and the “Negro” in particular. It was his intention to focus the attention of the world on the “Negro.” In working to preserve the history of Black people in America and throughout the world, Woodson accumulated a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications, which noted that African American contributions “were overlooked, ignored and suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them. Race prejudice,” he concluded, “is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”
In 1926, Woodson pioneered the observance of Negro History Week; 11 years later, he began publishing “the Negro History Bulletin” as a vehicle for disseminating the works of other Black scholars and researchers. There were many disagreements among spokesmen for the “Negro.” DuBois and the NAACP were diametrically opposed to Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist philosophy as being too pacific; both DuBois and Washington were critical of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Movement as being too radical. Woodson took a more scholarly approach to the problems of the “Negro.” He moved away from the NAACP but did not fully embrace Garvey’s movement, though he leaned towards Garvey relative to self-reliance and racial respect for the “Negro,” and regularly wrote a column for Garvey’s weekly publication, “Negro World.”
During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Woodson published approximately 15 more books including “The Negro in Our History” (1922); “Negro Orators and Their Orations” (1925); “The History of the Negro Church” (1927); “Negro Makers of History” (1928); “African Myths Together with Proverbs” (1928); “The Rural Negro” (1930); “The Negro Wage Earner” (1930); and his seminal work, “The Mis-Education of the Negro” (1933). These texts placed Woodson within the circle of many Black intellectuals during his lifetime and beyond, up to and including the present. He met the controversial issues of his time head-on and used his writings to respond to subjects/topics/criticisms whenever no other outlet was available. Some of his contemporaries distanced themselves from him especially when his writing on race and/or culture made them uncomfortable. Many of them sought inclusion into the greater (White) society–a society that did not accept them unless they adopted Euro-centric values. His attempts to get Black history, Black culture and an Afro-centric curricula into institutions of learning–even predominantly Black institutions–were often unsuccessful.
However, today, Woodson’s observance of Negro History Week has evolved into Black History Month and it is celebrate throughout the United States during the month of February. During the month, schools take particular interest to focus upon African American history and communities, businesses and government entities set aside time and resources to understand more fully one of Woodson’s most visible legacies. Another one of his legacies included the Associated Publishers, the oldest African-American publishing company in the United States which he founded in 1920 to enable publication of books concerning Blacks that would not have been supported in the rest of the market.
Woodson’s most ambitious undertaking was a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana that he did not complete at the time of his passing on April 3, 1950. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland-Silver Hill, Maryland, but he lived on through his works including “The Negro in Our History” which published its eleventh edition 16 years after his death.
He donated his collection of 5,000 items to the Library of Congress and in 1992, it exhibited those items entitled “Moving Back Barriers: the Legacy of Carter G. Woodson.” In addition, his Washington, D.C. home where he conducted most of his work was designated a national historic site. In 2002, the Journal of Negro History has been renamed the Journal of African American History and the ASNLH has been renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The same year, noted scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Carter one of the 100 greatest African Americans.
One of the lasting tributes paid to this great African American has been the naming of several institutions of learning in his name including the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Woodson K-8 School in Houston, Texas; Woodson Regional Library and Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Chicago, Illinois; Carter G. Woodson Elementary, Crisfield, Maryland; Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary, Baltimore, Maryland; Carter G. Woodson Elementary, Atlanta, Georgia; Carter G. Woodson Middle School in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Los Angeles, California.