Carter G. Woodson: Who was the 'Father of Black History' and how did he change attitudes to race in America?

Google Doodle pays respects to a revered African American educator, scholar and author

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 01 February 2018 11:32
Google Doodle celebrates Carter G. Woodson

Today's Google Doodle celebrates Black History Month and Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), the great African American scholar commonly regarded as "the Father of Black History".

Woodson grew up in rural New Canton, Virginia, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, the son of freed slaves James and Eliza Riddle Woodson.

James Woodson, a Union veteran, relocated his young family to Huntington, West Virginia, so that his son could attend a new high school for black students then under construction, hoping to give Carter the best possible chance of achieving the education he and his wife had been denied.

The financial realities of their situation however meant that Carter frequently had to miss school to help out on the family farm. Undeterred, the young student taught himself the fundamentals of English, maths and science and became accomplished in those subjects by the age of 17. He was forced to begin work in the coal mines of Fayette County at this point, temporarily frustrating what had been astonishing academic progress.

In 1895, aged 20, he was able to resume his studies at Douglass High School in Huntington and received his diploma in under two years. After three years of teaching, he returned to Douglass as principal before relocating to the Philippines between 1903 and 1907 to serve as a school supervisor.

Woodson's ongoing quest for self-improvement through study saw him earn a Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College, Kentucky, receive honours from the University of Chicago and complete a history PhD at Harvard in 1912, indicating a truly voracious appetite for learning. He was only the second African American to win a doctorate, following in the formidable footsteps of W.E.B. DuBois.

It was while serving as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1915 that Woodson and his colleague Alexander L. Jackson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, a pivotal work addressing African American history, a subject he felt had been badly neglected and crudely misrepresented by white academia.

Woodson would write over a dozen more books on black subjects over the course of his career as he began to turn his thoughts away from simply researching US history himself to raising awareness and making it accessible to others.

His next venture was founding the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, inspired by his time in Chicago, a collective whose goal was to formalise the education of adults and young children on their nation's past. The association duly produced a periodical to support their work, The Journal of Negro History. Woodson hoped such public outreach projects - as opposed to studies undertaken within the insular, cloistered world of universities - held the key to bringing about more enlightened relations between black and white citizens. Woodson believed that racism could be overcome and was "merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."

Carter G. Woodson

In 1926, he was involved in promoting Negro History Week in Washington, DC, the forerunner to Black History Month. Intended to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, the celebration promoted the organised study of African America, which Woodson felt had been "overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them".

Students at Kent State University, Ohio, would pick up his baton when they founded the first Black History Month on 1 February 1970, with President Gerald Ford recognising their project nationwide six years later.

Woodson continued to promote black American scholarship throughout his career as an educator, writing a widely-read regular column for Negro World, a weekly publication founded by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

Carter G. Woodson died of a heart attack in Washington in 1950, aged 74. His proud example set the stage for the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and he is rightly remembered to this day as a remarkable man and a true pioneer.

His insights into racial prejudice and the political machinery of oppression, incidentally, are as timely today as they ever were:

"If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have to worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments