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Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History

Black History Month can be traced back to Carter G. Woodson. (©NRCS.gov) Black History Month can be traced back to Carter G. Woodson. (©NRCS.gov)

By Barry Abisch

Today, the month of February is dedicated to the teaching of black history. Advocates say it takes a month because there is so much history to tell.

But that was not always the case.

Through the early decades of the 20th Century, teaching about the African-American experience focused on the issue of slavery. In that telling of history, black Americans were victims, and there were few lessons about black contributions to American history, culture and society.

Carter Godwin Woodson sought to change that, making it his cause to teach the broad spectrum of African-American history to all Americans, black and white alike. To call attention to the issue, he established Negro History Week in 1926; today, that weeklong focus on African-American contributions to America has expanded and evolved into Black History Month. And Carter G. Woodson is acknowledged as the Father of Black History.

Woodson himself was the son of former slaves. He was born in rural Virginia in 1875, where he spent most of his time working on his family's small farm. Growing up, he was able to attend school only four months a year. Yet the fact that he could read and write distinguished Woodson from many of the people he met while growing up in rural America, and encouraged his lifelong passion for education.

Although he had an appetite for learning and a special interest in the history of African-Americans, it was not until he was 20 that Woodson was able to begin a program of formal schooling. Once he began, he did not stop.

After completing high school in just two years, Woodson enrolled in Berea College where he earned a bachelor's degree. He then attended the University of Chicago, were he was awarded a second undergraduate degree and a master's degree. In 1912, he became the second African-American ever to earn a Ph. D. at Harvard University.

Meanwhile, Woodson supported himself as a school teacher and principal. For a time, he taught in the Philippines, and then he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. After moving to Washington, D.C. to research his dissertation at the Library of Congress he taught in the city's segregated public school system.

A Note on Sources

Although a number of resources were consulted, the following two articles were particularly helpful:

•A Burgeoning Cause
By Charlynn Spencer Pynn
Library of Congress Information Bulletin

•Carter G. Woodson
By Korey Bowers Brown
Association for the Study of American African Life and History

Additional Reading

Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History
By Jacqueline Anne Godggin
Carter G. Woodson: Father of African-American History
By Robert Franklin Durden
Carter G. Woodson: The Man Who Put 'Black' in American History
By Jim Haskins & Melanie K. Reim
Walking Proud
by M. A. Scally & Betty Humphreys

National Historic Site

From 1915 until his death in 1950, Carter Woodson made his home at 1538 9th Street, NW in Washington, D.C. The house in which he lived was acquired by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site in 2005. The building needs repair and restoration, and is not yet open to the public. However, the Woodson Home does have a page on the NPS Web site.

 

In addition to his studies and teaching, Woodson had become an author. In 1915, he published his first book, "The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861." That same year, he participated in the Exposition of Negro Progress, which marked the 50th anniversary of emancipation. Before the year was out, Woodson had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History  -- today, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Woodson explained the mission of the association, which would become his life's work, in a series of speeches and in the organization's journal. He expressed a belief that education was the key to change and that widespread knowledge of African American history would inspire black Americans and overcome prejudice among white Americans.

Woodson finally left the Washington schools, first to become a dean and head of the history department at Howard University, where he added lessons on black history to the curriculum. Subequently he became dean of West Virginia Collegiate Institute, which today is known as West Virgina State College. Again, he broadened the curriculum and was credited with attracting more students to the school.

He eventually left the academic world when support from the Carnegie Foundation and other philantropists enabled him to take a full-time staff position at the ASLFA and to begin hiring staff researchers. He soon published two more books. "The Negro in Our History" was a standard text used in high school and college classrooms for a quarter of a century.

By the mid-1920s, however, foundation support for Woodson's work diminished and eventually was withdrawn. Many commentators have seen that as the result of the segregationist underpinnings of American society and, in fact, Woodson was investigated by the FBI. Woodson turned successfuly to the black community for funding to make up for the loss of foundation grants. The work of the association continues to this day.

Although his academic credentials and scholarship and his leadership role could have secured his reputation, it was his declaration of Negro History Week in 1926 that led to his popular recognition as the Father of Black History.

This achievement, which has become a national tradition observed annually as Black History Month, has made Woodson the "Father of Black History."

Woodson died in 1950. His Washington home is being preserved as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service.

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