Lesson 140:
Carter G. Woodson

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 12/19/2023, Dr. Woodson's birthday
and edited and reposted on February 1, 2024 (Freedom Day)

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"I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me."

Carter Woodson.  Watercolour with some pen & ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in. Ever wonder just how we got a Black History Month? Thank Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson: scholar, author, and historian --whose birthday we celebrate today. Born December 19, 1865 in Virginia to formerly-enslaved parents, Carter showed an early aptitude for languages and overcame incredible odds to graduate from Berea College (KY) in 1903. He then went on to become a languages teacher in the Philippines on behalf of the U.S. War Department, a role which also saw him traveling throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. In 1907 he attained an M.A. in History, Romance languages, and Literature from the University of Chicago; at that time also becoming a member of the then-new Sigma Pi Phi (ΣΠΦ) fraternity. In 1912 he received his doctorate in History from Harvard University --becoming only the second Black student to ever earn a Ph.D from that school (the first being W.E.B. Du Bois --see Lesson #1 in this series). One of Woodson's faculty advisors at Harvard was Albert Bushnell Hart, who had also been Du Bois's advisor. While working towards his doctorate, Woodson taught languages in high school in Washington, D.C. --his dissertation, The Disruption of Virginia, was based on research that he was able to conduct at the Library of Congress. The dissertation concluded, in part, that the role of Black people in American history and in the history of other cultures, was being systemically misrepresented --or ignored outright-- among scholars.

Woodson's career stalled for a time after securing his Ph.D --no university would hire a Black man, which certainly tended to vindicate his findings! He eventually became principal of the Black Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C., and later became a professor at Howard University, ultimately serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. 1915 was a transformative year for Woodson --not only did he publish his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, but also co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which would become a lifelong commitment; in his words, to "treat the records scientifically and to publish the findings of the world" in order to avoid "the awful fate of becoming a negligible factor in the thought of the world."

The following year he launched The Journal of Negro History (which would later be known as The Journal of African American History), and in 1921 published another book, The History of the Negro Church. 1922 was another significant year: he published The Negro in Our History, which would remain in print throughout the rest of the 20th century and was hailed by Alain LeRoy Locke (watch for an upcoming biography about this person) as one of the "select class of books that have brought about a revolution in the human mind." Also in 1922, Woodson became a permanent D.C. resident and established his Ninth Street home as the headquarters for the ASNLH. Disillusioned with academic life, Woodson ultimately immersed himself in the mission of the ASNLH (sometimes committing up to 18 hours a day): 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. Dr. Woodson's dearly-held view was that history belonged to everybody, not just the historians; and for the rest of his life Woodson would actively engage Black civic leaders, high school teachers, clergymen, women's groups (including his neighbor Nannie Helen Burroughs' Womens' Convention of the National Baptist Convention --see Lesson #138), and fraternal associations in his dream to improve the understanding of African-American history.

Eschewing government grant money, Woodson relied solely on funding from Black communities and philanthropic organizations, and in 1926 the ASNLH launched Negro History Week --selecting the second week of February to coincide with the respective birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (and also coincidentally the founding of the NAACP). The annual event was aimed at inspiring high schools nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs, and to host guest performances and lecturers; a goal which continues to this day with its expansion to now incorporate the entire month of February; also marking February 1 as the date in 1865 that President Lincoln signed the resolution that would evenutally become the 13th Amendment. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, Woodson traveled all across the country, speaking at countless high schools and colleges but being particularly in demand for graduations and during the month of February. In 1933, Woodson published his last (nineteenth!) and perhaps most enduring book: The Miseducation of the Negro, and in 1937 he started The Negro History Bulletin as a resource for children and schoolteachers. Dr. Woodson died very suddenly of a heart attack in 1950, having never married nor fathered any children, but is rightly recognized today as The Father of Black History.

Watch a segment about Carter Woodson from The Library Of Virginia's documentary series "African American Trailblazers:"

Visit the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) at:

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