Carter Godwin Woodson, born on December 19, 1875 and died April 3, 1950, was an American historian, author, journalist, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He was one of the first scholars to study the history of the African diaspora, including African-American history. A founder of The Journal of Negro History in 1916, Woodson has been called the “father of black history”. In February 1926 he launched the celebration of “Negro History Week”, the precursor of Black History Month.
Born in Virginia, the son of former slaves, Woodson had to put off schooling while he worked in the coal mines of West Virginia. He graduated from Berea College, and became a teacher and school administrator. He gained graduate degrees at the University of Chicago and in 1912 was the second African American, after W. E. B. Du Bois, to obtain a PhD degree from Harvard University. Most of Woodson’s academic career was spent at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., where he eventually served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Carter G. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia on December 19, 1875, the son of former slaves Anne Eliza (Riddle) and James Henry Woodson. His parents were both illiterate and his father, who had helped the Union soldiers during the Civil War, supported the family as a carpenter and farmer. The Woodson family were extremely poor, but proud as both his parents told him that it was the happiest day of their lives when they became free. Woodson was often unable to attend primary school regularly so as to help out on the farm. Nonetheless, through self-instruction, he was able to master most school subjects.
At the age of seventeen, Woodson followed his brother to Huntington, where he hoped to attend the brand new secondary school for Black people, Douglass High School. However, Woodson, forced to work as a coal miner, was able to devote only minimal time each year to his schooling. In 1895, the twenty-year-old Woodson finally entered Douglass High School full-time, and received his diploma in 1897. From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught at Winona. In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903. From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines.
Woodson later attended the University of Chicago, where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908. He was a member of the first Black professional fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and a member of Omega Psi Phi. He completed his PhD in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African American (after W. E. B. Du Bois) 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 the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in public schools, as no university was willing to hire him, ultimately becoming the principal of the all-Black Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C. He later joined the faculty at Howard University as a professor, and served there as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His dissertation advisor was Albert Bushnell Hart, who had also been the advisor for Du Bois, with Edward Channing and Charles Haskins also on the committee.
Woodson felt that the American Historical Association (AHA) had no interest in Black history, noting that although he was a dues-paying member of the AHA, he was not allowed to attend AHA conferences. Woodson became convinced he had no future in the white-dominated historical profession, and to work as a Black historian would require creating an institutional structure that would make it possible for Black scholars to study history. As Woodson lacked the funds to finance such a new institutional structure himself, he turned to philanthropist institutions such as the Carnegie Foundation, the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
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. Along with William D. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History on September 9, 1915, in Chicago. That was the year Woodson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. His other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration (1918) and The History of the Negro Church (1927). His work The Negro in Our History has been reprinted in numerous editions and was revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson’s death in 1950. Woodson described the purpose of the ASNLH as the “scientific study” of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history” by training a new generation of Black people in historical research and methodology. Believing that history belonged to everybody, not just the historians, Woodson sought to engage Black civic leaders, high school teachers, clergymen, women’s groups and fraternal associations in his project to improve the understanding of Afro-American history.
In January 1916, Woodson began publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History. It has never missed an issue, despite the Great Depression, loss of support from foundations, and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African American History and continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
Woodson stayed at the Wabash Avenue YMCA during visits to Chicago. His 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. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) ran conferences, published The Journal of Negro History, and “particularly targeted those responsible for the education of black children”. Another inspiration was John Wesley Cromwell’s 1914 book, The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent. Portrait of Woodson from West Virginia Collegiate Institute’s El Ojoyearbook (1923)
Woodson believed that education and increasing social and professional contacts among Black and white people could reduce racism, and he promoted the organized study of African-American history partly for that purpose. He would later promote the first Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in 1926, forerunner of Black History Month. The Bronzeville neighborhood declined during the late 1960s and 1970s like many other inner-city neighborhoods across the nation, and the Wabash Avenue YMCA was forced to close during the 1970s, until being restored in 1992 by The Renaissance Collaborative.
He served as Academic Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922. By 1922, Woodson’s experience of academic politics and intrigue had left him so disenchanted with university life that he vowed never to work in academia again.
He studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, he published the first survey of free Black slaveowners in the United States in 1830.