August 3rd, 2015
Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Carter G. Woodson spent a lifetime researching, collecting, recording, and writing about African American History. Woodson’s tireless scholarship as well as his insistence that African Americans had a place in history led him to publish more than twenty books and articles on the historic role of African Americans. Founder of the Black History Month we know today, Woodson’s initial effort was called Black History Week and it was designated by Woodson to be held in the second week of February.
Woodson was born in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia in 1875. His parents were former slaves who could not read or write. Woodson’s extraordinary journey in the pursuit of education led him from this humble background to graduate with a doctorate from Harvard University in 1912. His dissertation focused on West Virginia statehood. The consequences of West Virginia statehood were still an active concern as the Virginia vs. West Virginia debt suit had labored for years in court over an outstanding debt Virginia claimed in 1861. The case was not settled until the Supreme Court issued its judgment in 1911, one year prior to Woodson’s graduation.
Woodson spent most of his life in West Virginia. As a sixteen year old, he and his brothers left Virginia for Charleston where they worked laying railroad ties. Later the brothers moved to Fayette County to find work in the mines. His parents followed their children to West Virginia when his father got a job in the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad shops. Woodson joined his parents in Huntington and it was there that he was finally able to attain the education he had long desired. Without educational opportunities in Virginia, Woodson taught himself how to read and write. Although he was twenty years old when he enrolled in Frederick Douglass High School, he excelled, graduating in less than two years. Woodson’s cousin served as principal of the high school and two of his uncles taught there. From Huntington, Woodson continued his education at Berea College, after which he attended the University of Chicago graduating with a masters in History.
Always an educator, Woodson returned to Fayette County to teach in order to raise funds to continue his education at Berea. He would also return to Frederick Douglass High School to serve as principal, following in his cousin’s footsteps. He taught in the Philippines and at Howard University in Washington D.C. After leaving Howard he served as the dean of the college department at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now known as West Virginia State University.
Throughout his life, Carter G. Woodson chronicled the African American experience to the exclusion of a person life, choosing scholarship over a wife and family. His exhaustive efforts have illuminated individuals and events that would have gone unknown and unheralded without his intervention. Woodson stepped into the breach to discover and recover African American history as it was perilously teetering on the edge of oblivion. Today, we all owe a tremendous debt to this remarkable West Virginian for his efforts to promote the study and discipline of African American History.
Many of Carter G. Woodson’s books are available in the West Virginia and Regional History Center, including Freedom and Slavery in Appalachian America and Early Negro Education in Virginia.
Older Woodson: West Virginia History OnView, West Virginia and Regional History Center
Young Woodson: Goggin, J. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950). (2014, May 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Woodson_Carter_G_1875-1950
Carter G. Woodson. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 01:03, Jul 31, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/carter-g-woodson-9536515
Bickley, Ancella R. “Carter G. Woodson.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 November 2010. Web. 31 July 2015.
Bumgardner, Stan. Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History. Wonderful West Virginia. 78 (February 2014): 4-7 pp.