Carter Godwin Woodson was born in New Canton in Buckingham County on December 19, 1875. His parents, James Henry Woodson of Fluvanna County and Anne Eliza Riddle Woodson of Buckingham County, had been enslaved. Woodson grew up in Virginia, working as a farm laborer and attending school in a one-room schoolhouse, where he was taught by his uncles. In 1892 he moved to West Virginia, and, following his older brothers, worked as a coal miner in Fayette County for better wages than he had received for agricultural work.
In 1895, Woodson enrolled in segregated Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia, and earned his high school diploma in 1897 after completing four years of course work in two years. In 1903 he received a bachelor’s degree from Berea College, an integrated school in Kentucky founded by abolitionists. For the next four years he taught in the Philippines. He then earned a master’s degree in European history from the University of Chicago (1908) and a doctorate from Harvard University (1912). Woodson was the second African American, after W. E. B. Du Bois, to be awarded a doctorate in history from Harvard and the first person of enslaved parents to receive a PhD in history.
African American Historian
While attending the Exposition of Negro Progress in Chicago in 1915, which was organized to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The organization was headquartered in Washington, D.C., where Woodson lived and where he worked teaching high school in the District of Columbia public schools. The same year, Woodson established the Journal of Negro History (its first issue was published in January 1916), to give scholars, primarily African Americans and whites who wrote about black history, a vehicle in which to publish their research. (African American studies would not be fully accepted by mainstream historical journals until the 1960s.)
In 1915 Woodson’s first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, was published and subsequently evaluated in the New York Times within the same review as America’s Greatest Problem: The Negro by R. W. Shufeldt, an anthropologist and noted paleontologist whose specialty was not people, but birds. The review suggests the climate of academia at the time and the difficulties Woodson faced in promoting black history. For instance, the Times quotes Shufeldt as arguing that the African American had never “contributed a single line to literature worth the printing; a single cog in the machine of invention; an idea to any science; or, in short, advanced civilization a single millimeter since the first Congo pair was placed on this soil.” The Times even acknowledged and labeled as “grave” the “deplorable situation in parts of the South, of course, with the daily terror that it imposes on white women.” In this context, Woodson’s arguments—that African Americans had, indeed, made important contributions but only by overcoming hundreds of years of forced illiteracy—came as a shock to many people.
Woodson developed an audience for his journal and books by traveling around the country and lecturing to African American organizations and institutions, women’s clubs, fraternal associations, and civic groups. He also held annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and worked with schoolteachers and boards of education to promote the study of African American history. In 1921 he created the Associated Publishers, which was dedicated to issuing books by African American authors. In 1922 his overview of the black experience, The Negro in Our History, was published. And in 1926 he orchestrated the annual celebration of Negro History Week in February, held in connection with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1976, the celebration was extended to a month, and has now evolved into Black History Month. In his work with schoolteachers, Woodson prepared curriculum materials and “Negro History Kits” to encourage the study of African American history.
An excellent fund-raiser, Woodson received major support from white philanthropists during the 1920s and early in the 1930s to support his program of research and publication. With these funds, he was able to hire several younger African American scholars, including Rayford Logan, Lorenzo Green, A. A. Taylor, Charles Wesley, andto conduct research and publish books and articles on all aspects of African American life and history. In addition, he traveled throughout the United States and Europe to collect primary source materials on blacks that he placed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they remain available for scholarly use today.
Civil Rights Advocate
Less well known are Woodson’s activities in civil rights organizations. He was a lifelong member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. Woodson vigorously championed the NAACP’s antilynching campaign. He was a supporter of both separatist Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association as well as socialist A. Philip Randolph’s Friends of Negro Freedom. During the 1930s and 1940s, Woodson backed other radical and leftist black organizations, such as the New Negro Alliance and its “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, which was a reaction to the exclusion of African American laborers from white-owned businesses in large urban areas. He also supported the radical National Negro Congress and attended its meetings.
Woodson died in Washington, D.C., on April 3, 1950. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Associated Publishers, and the Journal of Negro History struggled to survive after his death. Financial hardships plagued the organization throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, the organization remains in existence today, with a new name, The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the Journal of Negro History likewise has been renamed The Journal of African American History and is still published. The Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia was named in his honor. Although African American history and African American scholars are now widely respected in academic circles, the economic plight of ordinary African American people remains problematic. Woodson had hoped that widespread knowledge and appreciation for history would help to alleviate both racial and economic discrimination and dedicated his efforts toward that cause.
- The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915)
- A Century of Negro Migration (1918)
- The History of the Negro Church (1921)
- Early Negro Education in West Virginia (1921)
- The Negro in Our History (1922); adapted for elementary-school students as Negro Makers of History (1928); adapted for high-school students as The Story of the Negro Retold (1935)
- African Myths, Together with Proverbs (1928)
- The Negro as a Businessman, by Woodson, John H. Harmon Jr., and Arnett C. Lindsay (1929)
- The Negro Wage Earner, by Woodson and Lorenzo J. Greene (1930)
- The Rural Negro (1930)
- The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
- The Negro Professional Man and the Community (1934)
- The African Background Outlined (1936)
- African Heroes and Heroines (1939)
- Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830 (editor, 1924)
- Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 (editor, 1925)
- Negro Orators and Their Orations (editor, 1925)
- The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800–1860 (editor, 1926)
- The Works of Francis J. Grimké (editor, 4 volumes, 1942)