Carter Godwin Woodson
December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950
Notable: Historian & Author
Carter G. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia the fourth of his parents, Anne Eliza (née Riddle) and James Henry Woodson’s, seven or nine children. His parents had both lived and been enslaved in the area before emancipation. Woodson’s mother had been separated from her mother and two brothers when the man who owned them sold them off due to financial problems. His father was a skilled slave who fled to join the Union army after fighting back against someone who attempted to whip him.
Despite being illiterate, Woodson’s parents worked hard to establish a tobacco farm so they could support themselves independently. As was customary at the time, the kids being available to help with the farmwork was vital to the family’s survival. Due to the demands of the farm, Woodson was only able to attend school for four months out of the year but furthered his education by reading and learning on his own.
In his late teens, he moved with his brothers to Huntington, West Virginia, and found work as a coal miner. During this time Woodson met Oliver Jones, a Black coal miner, whose home served as a meeting place where Black people could openly discuss a variety of topics. The environment allowed Woodson to read and study Black history at his leisure, igniting the flame for what would later become his life’s work.
Working in the coal mines offered Woodson an opportunity to save enough money to enroll in high school at the age of 20. A motivated student, Woodson completed the four-year program in just two and went on to attend Berea College in Kentucky from which he earned a Bachelor of Literature and teaching certificate.
While attending college, Woodson supported himself by teaching at local high schools and accepted a position at his alma mater after graduation. He spent four years working for the US War Department as a teacher in the Philippines and traveled before attending the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Upon returning to America, Woodson obtained a master’s degree from the University of Chicago after which he enrolled and became the first descendent of slaves to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.
During the early 1900s when Woodson was attending college and post-grad there was very little focus on the history of Black Americans. Prejudice pushed the narrative that Black people had little relevant history and what little history they did have warranted their subjugation. Woodson recognized the omission of Black history as being a tool of white supremacy.
In 1915, Woodson also published his first book The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 which explained his perspective on the importance of Black history. Later that year, he co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) intending to encourage people to take an interest in Black history. The organization launched The Journal of Negro History which continues to publish peer-reviewed scholarly articles.
Woodson sought to further expand awareness of the achievements and contributions of Black Americans. In 1926, he established the first Negro History Week and set it to begin on February 7 to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The ASNLH celebration was adopted by schools and institutions across the country.
The intention was not to confine Negro History Week to one week per year but the hope was that Black history would be more fully told and integrated with American history. Over time, educators and organizations affiliated with the ASNLH extended the celebration and by the 1960s it had expanded to cover the entire month of February. In 1976, Black History Month was officially granted national observance.
Woodson died unexpectedly from a heart attack on April 3, 1950, at the age of 74. He would be best remembered as the “father of Black History” for establishing Black History Week and thereby Black History Month. But, Woodson was also a prolific writer who penned hundreds of articles and wrote or otherwise contributed to over twenty books, the most famous of which was his 1933 release, The Mis-Education of the Negro. He also served as a mentor to younger history scholars and treated female co-workers as equals which was rather progressive in comparison to many other male leaders of the time.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Carter G. Woodson.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 26, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scholar/carter-g-woodson.
- “Carter G. Woodson.” 2020. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. July 17, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/cawo/learn/carter-g-woodson-biography.htm.
- Pruitt, Sarah. 2021. “The Man Behind Black History Month.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 2, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/the-man-behind-black-history-month.
- Vox, Lisa. 2021. “Biography of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Black Historian.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. January 7, 2021. https://www.thoughtco.com/black-historian-carter-g-woodson-biography-45199.
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