― Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
Known as the “Father of Black History,” Woodson understood the importance of gaining a proper education. He learned early that education was instrumental in harnessing one’s divine human right of freedom. Although he did not begin his formal education until he was 20 years old, his dedication to academia enabled him to earn a high school diploma in West Virginia and bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago in a short time. In 1912, Woodson became the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.
Carter G. Woodson was born December 19, 1875, the son of former enslaved Africans, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. His father was known to aid Union soldiers during the Civil War. Eventually, James Woodson moved his family to West Virginia when he heard that Huntington was building a high school for black students. The Woodsons knew the importance of education early on and made necessary sacrifices to give their family the best opportunities. Coming from a large, poor family, Carter Woodson could not regularly attend school, however. Carter refused to let his economic circumstances dictate his education. Taking matters into his own hands, he began self-instruction and soon mastered the fundamentals of common school subjects by age 17.
Once he reached adulthood, Carter was able to devote only a few months each year to his education and had to turn to earning living as a miner in the coal fields. In 1895, at the age of 20, Woodson entered Douglass High School, where he received his diploma in less than two years and soon after became a teacher. From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught at a school founded by black miners for their children in Winona, an area located in Fayette County, West Virginia. In 1900 he returned to Douglass High School, as principal. Always dedicated to furthering his own education, he earned his Bachelor of Literature degree in 1903 from Kentucky’s Berea College by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903.
As his academic career began to flourish, Woodson became a school supervisor in the Philippines, from 1903 to 1907.. Later, he attended the University of Chicago and was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908. He was a member of the first black Greek-lettered fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi, an exclusive organization, not open to college campuses or undergraduates, that was created for black professionals. Carter would also become a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He completed his PhD in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African American (after W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a doctorate. His doctoral dissertation,The Disruption of Virginia, was based on research he did at the Library of Congress while teaching high school in Washington, D.C. After earning his doctoral degree, he continued teaching in the public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, where he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Convinced that the role of his own people in American history and in the history of other cultures was being ignored or misrepresented among scholars, Woodson realized the need for research into the neglected past of African Americans. In 1915, Woodson, along with Alexander L. Jackson, published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. Carter also published the first survey of free black slaveowners in the United States. His other books such as A Century of Negro Migration continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and The Mis-Education of the Negro continues to be required reading in many high school and college courses and even served as inspiration for Lauryn Hill’s debut album title.
In a time when most travelers and young men stayed at the YMCA for temporary residence, Carter often stayed at the Wabash Avenue YMCA during his frequent visits to Chicago. Dorothy Porter Wesley once stated that “Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA.” He would teasingly decline her dinner invitations saying, “No, you are trying to marry me off. I am married to my work”.
Dr. Woodson’s experiences at the Y and in the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood inspired him to create the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Woodson believed that education and increasing social and professional contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism and he promoted the organized study of all black history partly for that purpose. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), which ran conferences, published The Journal of Negro History, and “particularly targeted those responsible for the education of black children”. Through his writings and his work with his association, Woodson saw an extreme void in the representation of the representations and contributions of black/African people to society, history and culture. This absence would later influence Dr. Woodson to create and promote the first Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in 1926, forerunner of Black History Month.
Woodson soon became affiliated with the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP, and its chairman Archibald Grimké. The honeymoon did not last long. On January 28, 1915, he wrote a letter to Grimké expressing his dissatisfaction with activities. Woodson made two proposals:
- That the branch secure an office for a center to which persons may report whatever concerns the black race may have, and from which the Association may extend its operations into every part of the city; and
- That a canvasser be appointed to enlist members and obtain subscriptions for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W. E. B. Du Bois.
W. E. B. Du Bois added to the proposal to divert “patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike,” that is, boycott businesses. Woodson wrote that he would cooperate as one of the twenty-five effective canvassers, adding that he would pay the office rent for one month. Grimke did not welcome Woodson’s ideas.
Responding to Grimke’s comments about his proposals, on March 18, 1915, Woodson wrote,
- “I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. 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.”
His difference of opinion with Grimké, who wanted a more conservative course, contributed to Woodson’s ending his affiliation with the NAACP.
In 1920, Dr. Woodson would spend two years on his final professional appointment in West Virginia as the Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University. And after ending his tenure at Howard University, Woodson devoted the rest of his life to historical research. He worked to preserve the history of African Americans and accumulated a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications. He noted that African-American contributions “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” Racial 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 celebration of “Negro History Week”, designated for the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The week of recognition became accepted and has been extended as the full month of February, now known as Black History Month.
Woodson believed in self-reliance and racial respect, values he shared with Marcus Garvey. Woodson became a regular columnist for Garvey’s weekly Negro World.
Woodson’s political activism placed him at the center of a circle of many black intellectuals and activists from the 1920s to the 1940s. He corresponded with W. E. B. Du Bois, John E. Bruce, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Hubert H. Harrison, and T. Thomas Fortune among others. Even with the extended duties of the Association, Woodson made time to write academic works such as The History of the Negro Church (1922) and, again, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), as well as others which continue to have wide readership.
Woodson did not shy away from controversial subjects, and used the pages of Black World to contribute to debates. One issue related to West Indian/African-American relations. Woodson summarized that “the West Indian Negro is free.” He observed that West Indian societies had been more successful at properly dedicating the necessary amounts of time and resources needed to educate and genuinely emancipate people. Woodson approved of efforts by West Indians to include materials related to Black history and culture into their school curricula.
Woodson was ostracized by some of his contemporaries because of his insistence on defining a category of history related to ethnic culture and race. At the time, these educators felt that it was wrong to teach or understand African-American history as separate from more general American history. According to these educators, “Negroes” were simply Americans, darker skinned, but with no history apart from that of any other. Thus Woodson’s efforts to get Black culture and history into the curricula of institutions, even historically Black colleges, were often unsuccessful. Today African-American studies have become specialized fields of study in history, music, culture, literature and other areas; in addition, there is more emphasis on African-American contributions to general American culture. The United States now celebrates Black History Month.
The fact that schools and most television media have set aside a time each year to focus on African-American history is Woodson’s most visible legacy. His determination to further the recognition of the Negro in American and world history, however, inspired countless other scholars. Woodson remained focused on his work throughout his life. Many see him as a man of vision and understanding. Although Woodson was among the ranks of the educated few, he did not feel partial to elite educational institutions. The Association and Journal that he started in 1915 continue, and both have earned intellectual respect.
Many of Woodson’s other far-reaching activities also included:
- the founding of the Associated Publishers, the oldest African-American publishing company in the United States, in 1920. This enabled publication of books concerning blacks that might not have been supported in the rest of the market.
- the founding of Negro History Week in 1926 (now known as Black History Month).
- the creation of the Negro History Bulletin, developed for teachers in elementary and high school grades, and published continuously since 1937.
- influencing his Association’s direction and subsidizing of research in African-American history.
- writing and publishing numerous articles, monographs and books on Black people and the influence of Africans throughout the world. The Negro in Our History reached its eleventh edition in 1966, when it had sold more than 90,000 copies.
Woodson’s most cherished ambition, a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana, lay incomplete at his death on April 3, 1950 at the age of 74. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
LEGACY AND HONORS
- In 1926, Woodson received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal.
- The U.S. Postal Service issued a 20 cent stamp honoring Woodson in 1984.
- In 1992, the Library of Congress held an exhibition entitled “Moving Back Barriers: The Legacy of Carter G. Woodson”. Woodson had donated his collection of 5,000 items from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to the Library.
- His Washington, D.C. home has been preserved and designated the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Carter G. Woodson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
PLACES NAMED AFTER WOODSON
Carter Woodson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943
- Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Los Angeles.
- Carter G. Woodson Park, in Oakland Park.
- Carter G. Woodson Elementary School was a former school located in Oakland Park. It was closed in 1965 when the Broward County Public Schools system was desegregated.
- Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.
- Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Jacksonville.
- Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Atlanta.
- Carter G. Woodson Regional Library in Chicago.
- Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Chicago.
- Carter G. Woodson Library in Gary.
- Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Lexington.
- Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, Berea College, in Lexington.
- Carter G. Woodson Middle School in New Orleans.
- Carter G. Woodson Liberal Arts Building at Grambling State University, built in 1915, in Grambling.
- Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Crisfield. 
- Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Baltimore. 
- Woodson Institute for Student Excellence in Minneapolis.
- PS 23 Carter G. Woodson School in Brooklyn. 
- Carter G. Woodson Charter School in Winston Salem.
- Woodson K-8 School in Houston.
- The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 
- Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell.
- C.G. Woodson Road in his home town of New Canton.
- Carter G. Woodson Education Complex in Buckingham County, built in 2012.
- Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington is located on the Carter G. Woodson Campus.
- Carter G. Woodson Jr. High School (renamed McKinley Jr. High School after integration in 1954) in St. Albans, built in 1932.
See a quick video about Woodson here: