Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
Dr. Woodson was born December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, to parents who had been slaves before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. His father, James Woodson, had worked diligently for the Union during the Civil War. The elder Woodson moved his family to West Virginia when he heard that Huntington was building a high school for black students.
The Woodson family was large and had very limited resources, so Carter could only attend school very infrequently. But that didn’t stop the young Woodson. Through self-instruction, he managed to master all of the fundamentals of the “common school subjects” by the age of 17.
Unable to afford the luxury of a full-time education, in 1892, Woodson moved to Fayette County, W. Va. where he would spend the next three years working as a coal miner. This time spent underground in the West Virginia hills would prove to be influential on the young Woodson, who for the rest of his life would advocate for vocational education alongside classroom education.
In 1895, at the age of 20, Woodson moved back to Huntington and enrolled full time at Douglass High School, completing his curriculum in just two years and graduating at the top of his class in 1897. From there, he moved back to Fayette County to work as a teacher for the children of the coal camps.
In 1900, Woodson was selected as the new principal at Douglass High, so he returned once again to Huntington and began taking classes part-time at Berea College in Kentucky. He would ultimately earn a Bachelor of Literature degree from the college in 1903. Amazingly, Berea would have been forced to deny entry to Woodson the very next year after the State of Kentucky passed the Day Law, which prohibited students of color from enrolling at historically white colleges.
After his graduation from Berea, Woodson enrolled at the University of Chicago and, in 1908, earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Arts degrees. Woodson would go on to be the second African-American in history (after W.E.B. Dubois) to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912.
The newly titled Dr. Woodson strongly believed that racism was the result of what we would now call “white washed” history, the promoted accomplishments of Europeans and downplayed or even ignored accomplishments of Africans.
“[African-American contributions] were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them. [Race prejudice] 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.” –Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
To balance this obviously Euro-centric view of American history, in 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. That same year Woodson published his first book: The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. This would be followed by A Century of Negro Migration in 1918, The Negro in Our History in 1922, and The History of the Negro Church in 1927. His 1933 work The Mis-Education of the Negro is still a popular read on American history and is available through Barnes & Noble HERE.
Dr. Woodson believed that increasing educational opportunities along with social and professional contacts between blacks and whites would reduce racism and he promoted the study of African-American history partly for this purpose.
“What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.” –Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
Dr. Woodson would take his message to the nation with the first Negro History Week in Washington D.C. in 1926. The original Negro History Week coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. However, while the educational holiday would continue to be celebrated yearly across the country, it would not be until 1976 that President Gerald Ford would formally recognize Black History Month.
Dr. Woodson continued his quest for historical knowledge and racial equality up until his sudden death from a hearth attack in 1950. Thankfully, his message lives on in the form of his written words and those he has inspired with them.
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
“History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.” –Dr. Carter G. Woodson.