His Early Life and Quest for Knowledge
Born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, Carter Godwin Woodson was the fourth of nine children born to parents who had been enslaved. As an African American boy growing up in central Virginia during the late 19th century, during and after the Reconstruction era, he had few educational or employment opportunities. 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, at the age of 20, Woodson saved enough money from his days as a coal miner to begin his formal education at Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, 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, writing, and arithmetic. Woodson then earned his first collegiate degree from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky in 1903 and continued his education at the University of Chicago, obtaining another Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, both in 1908. In 1912, he earned his PhD in History from Harvard University, making him the second Black American (only following W.E.B. Du Bois) to graduate with a PhD from Harvard; and the only person of enslaved parentage to earn a PhD in History from any institution in the United States.
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, on September 9,1915, 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. On July 18, 1922, he purchased his home at 1538 Ninth Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C., and he located the association's headquarters on the first floor. He resided on the third floor of the home until his death on April 3, 1950.
While running the organization, he 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, he 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.
A Champion of Women and a Mentor to Many
During Dr. Carter G. Woodson's lifetime, ASALH had five presidents. In 1936, Mary McLeod Bethune was elected president of the organization, filling the vacancy left open after the death of educator John Hope. Bethune not only was the first female president, she was also its longest serving, wearing the title until 1952. Woodson, unlike most male scholars during this time, welcomed African American women as equal co-workers and leaders in the ranks of his movement and also facilitated productive, cross-generational dialogues and relationships.
He was a mentor to many up-and-coming historians and scholars such as Alrutheus A. Taylor, Charles H. Wesley, Luther Porter Jackson, Lorenzo Johnston Greene, Rayford W. Logan, Lawrence D. Reddick, and John Hope Franklin. The association's headquarters/Woodson's office-home served as a training center and these scholars in turn trained succeeding generations of African American historians that helped to legitimize Black History. While Woodson developed young men and women, the association developed important relationships with Black churches, colleges, universities, schools, and community centers all around the country.
Last updated: August 12, 2023