Woodson's Early Life
Born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, Carter G. Woodson was the son of parents who had been enslaved. As an African American boy growing up in central Virginia during the late 19th century, Woodson had few educational or employment opportunities. He did not have the chance to attend school. In pursuit of a new life, he and his family moved to Huntington, West Virginia, where he worked in the New River Gorge coalfields to help supplement the family’s income. Finally, by the time he was 20, Woodson saved enough money from his days as a coal miner to begin his formal education at Douglass High School, one of the few black high schools at the time. He received his diploma in just two years, as he was already self-taught in basic reading and arithmetic. Woodson then earned his first collegiate degree from Berea College in Kentucky and continued his education at the University of Chicago, obtaining another Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree. In 1912, he earned his PhD from Harvard University, making him the second black American, only following W.E.B. Du Bois, and the first person of enslaved parentage to receive such a degree from the institution.
Around the turn of the 20th century, as he began his own academic career, Woodson noticed a glaring hole in the educational system in the United States. The public knew very little about the role of African Americans in American history, and schools were not including African American history in their curriculum. He worked tirelessly throughout his life to remedy this problem, becoming nationally recognized as “the Father of Black History.”
Institutionalizing the Field of Black History
As Woodson immersed himself in the world of education, he noticed the prevailing ignorance and lack of information concerning black life and history. In an attempt to correct such an obvious oversight, Woodson, in 1915, co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc., now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. (ASALH). The organization aimed to inform the American public about the contributions of black Americans in the formation of the country, its history, and culture. In 1922, when Woodson moved into his home at 1538 9th Street NW in Washington, D.C., he located the association's headquarters on the first floor. He resided on the third floor of the home until his death in 1950.
While running the organization, Woodson also took on many other roles within the academic world. He taught at both the public school and collegiate levels, trained researchers and other staff at the organization, and wrote books and articles on the subject that was his life’s work. Woodson held the position of Dean at the School of Liberal Arts and Head of the Graduate Faculty at Howard University from 1919 to 1920. He also served as Dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now known as West Virginia State University. Although he was well-respected and sought after in the academic arena, Woodson retired from teaching in 1922 to devote his full attention to ASALH, research, writing, and grooming young scholars for the historical profession.
Woodson also started the academic publication The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and The Negro History Bulletin in 1937. In 1921, he founded the Associated Publishers, Inc., a publishing company that took on works that other companies would not, such as the writings of black scholars and women on African American and African Diaspora history.
During Woodson's lifetime, the association had five presidents, including Mary McLeod Bethune. The association developed important relationships with black churches, colleges, universities, schools, and community centers around the country.
Last updated: February 27, 2019