Dr Carter Woodson: father of black history
Every year in the month of February, people of African ancestry in numerous countries across the globe celebrate Black History Month.
Indeed, many not of African ethnicity join with their black brothers and sisters in celebrating and observing the journey, achievements and contributions to humanity of those whose roots can be traced to the African continent.
One man whose name will be forever associated with Black History Month or the concept of highlighting the passage through history of the black race is
Carter Godwin Woodson.
Woodson was born on December 19, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia, United States, to sharecropper James Woodson and Anne Riddle. He would gain fame for his chronicling and publication of black history and exposing the achievements of persons of African ethnicity to the wider world. Dubbed the Father Of Negro History, Woodson was the first and only black American born of former slaves to earn a PhD in history.
Woodson’s parents instilled in him high morality and strong character through religious teachings and a thirst for education. One of nine children, he purportedly was his mother’s favourite, and was sheltered. As a small child he worked on the family farm, and as a teenager he worked as an agricultural day labourer.
In the late 1880s, the Woodsons moved to Fayette County, West Virginia, where his father worked in railroad construction, and where he himself found work as a coal miner. In 1895, at the age of 20, Woodson enrolled in Frederick Douglass High School where, possibly because he was an older student and felt the need to catch up, he completed four years of coursework in two years and graduated in 1897.
Desiring additional education, Woodson enrolled in Berea College in Kentucky, which had been founded by abolitionists in the 1850s for the education of former slaves. Although he briefly attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Woodson graduated from Berea in 1903, just a year before Kentucky passed the “Day Law”, prohibiting interracial education. After college, Woodson taught at Frederick Douglass High School in West Virginia.
Believing in the uplifting power of education, and desiring the opportunity to travel to another country to observe and experience the culture firsthand, he decided to accept a teaching post in the Philippines, teaching at all grade levels, and remained there from 1903 to 1907.
Woodson’s world view and ideas about how education could transform society, improve race relations, and benefit the lower classes, were shaped by his experiences as a college student and as a teacher. Woodson took correspondence courses through the University of Chicago because he was determined to obtain additional education. He was enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1907 as a full-time student and earned a Bachelor’s degree, and a Master’s in European history, submitting a thesis on French diplomatic policy towards Germany in the 18th century.
Woodson then attended Harvard University on scholarships, matriculating in 1909 and studying with Edward Channing, Albert Bushnell Hart, and Frederick Jackson Turner. In 1912, Woodson earned his PhD in history, completing a dissertation on the events leading to the creation of the state of West Virginia after the Civil War broke out.
Unfortunately, he never published the dissertation. He taught at the Armstrong and Dunbar/M Street high schools in Washington from 1909 to 1919, and then moved on to Howard University, where he served as dean of arts and sciences, professor of history, and head of the graduate programme in history from 1919 to 1920.
From 1920 to 1922 he taught at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In 1922 he returned to Washington to direct the Association For The Study Of Negro Life
And History full-time.
Woodson began the work that sustained him for the rest of his career, and for which he is best known, when he founded the association in Chicago in the summer of 1915. Woodson had always been interested in African-American history and believed that education in the subject at all levels of the curriculum could inculcate racial pride and foster better race relations.
Under the auspices of the association, Woodson founded the Journal Of Negro History, which began publication in 1916, and established Associated Publishers in 1921 to publish works in black history. He launched the annual celebration of Negro History Week in February, 1926, and had achieved a distinguished publishing career as a scholar of African-American history by 1937, when he began publishing the Negro History Bulletin.
The Journal Of Negro History, which Woodson edited until his death, served as the centerpiece of his research programme, not only providing black scholars with a medium in which to publish their research, but also serving as an outlet for the publication of articles written by white scholars, when their interpretations of such subjects as slavery and black culture differed from mainstream historians. Woodson formulated an editorial policy that was inclusive.
Topically, the Journal provided coverage in various aspects of the black experience: slavery, the slave trade, black culture, the family, religion, and antislavery and abolitionism, and included biographical articles on prominent African Americans. Chronologically, articles covered the 16th through the 20th centuries. Scholars, as well as interested amateurs, published important historical articles in the Journal, and Woodson kept a balance between professional and non-specialist contributors.
Woodson began celebration of Negro History Week to increase awareness of and interest in black history among both Blacks and Whites. He chose the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Each year he sent promotional brochures and pamphlets to state boards of education, elementary and secondary schools, colleges, women’s clubs, black newspapers and periodicals, and white scholarly journals suggesting ways to celebrate.
The association also produced bibliographies, photographs, books, pamphlets, and other promotional literature to assist the black community in the commemoration. Negro History Week celebrations often included parades of costumed characters depicting the lives of famous Blacks, breakfasts, banquets, lectures, poetry readings, speeches, exhibits, and other special presentations. During Woodson’s lifetime, the celebration reached every state and several foreign countries.
Among the major objectives of Woodson’s research and the programmes he sponsored through the Association For The Study Of Afro-American Life And History (the name was changed in the 1970s to reflect the changing times) was to counteract the racism promoted in works published by white scholars.
With several young black assistants –– Rayford W. Logan, Charles H. Wesley, Lorenzo J. Greene, and A. A. Taylor –– Woodson pioneered in writing the social history of black Americans, using new sources and methods, such as census data, slave testimony, and oral history. These scholars moved away from interpreting Blacks solely as victims of white oppression and racism towards a view of them as major actors in American history.
During the 1920s, Woodson funded the research and outreach programmes of the association with substantial grants from white foundations such as the Carnegie Foundation, the General Education Board, and the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation. Wealthy Whites, such as Julius Rosenwald, also made contributions. White philanthropists cut Woodson’s funding in the early 1930s, however, after he refused to affiliate the association with a black college. During and after the depression, Woodson depended on the black community for his sole source of support.
Woodson began his career as a publishing scholar in the field of African-American history in 1915 with the publication of The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861. By 1947, when the ninth edition of his textbook The Negro In Our History appeared, Woodson had published four monographs, five textbooks, five edited collections of source materials, and 13 articles, as well as five collaborative sociological studies. Covering a wide range of topics, he relied on an interdisciplinary method, combining anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and history.
Among the first scholars to investigate slavery from the slaves’ point of view, Woodson studied it comparatively at institutions in the United States and Latin America. His work prefigured the concerns of later scholars of slavery by several decades, as he examined slaves’ resistance to bondage, the internal slave trade and the break-up of slave families, miscegenation, and Blacks’ achievements despite the adversity of slavery.
Woodson focused mainly on slavery in the antebellum period, examining the relationships between owners and slaves and the impact of slavery upon the organization of land, labour, agriculture, industry, education, religion, politics, and culture. Woodson also noted the African cultural influences on African-American culture. In The Negro Wage Earner (1930) and The Negro Professional Man And The Community (1934) Woodson described class and occupational stratification within the black community. Using a sample of 25,000 doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers, writers, and journalists, he examined income, education, family background, marital status, religious affiliation, club and professional memberships, and the literary tastes of black professionals. He hoped that his work on Africa would “invite attention to the vastness of Africa and the complex problems of conflicting cultures”.
Woodson never married or had children, and he died at his Washington home on April 3, 1950.
The celebration of Black History Month is a tribute to his legacy.