Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 – 1950): Life and Major Accomplishments of the Father of Black History

Widely referred to as the “Father of Black History”, Carter Godwin Woodson was a notable African American historian who played a pivotal role in identifying and preserving the history and accomplishments of African Americans. Born to former slaves, the Virginia-born historian overcame early hardships, working as a miner and sharecropper, and remained committed to education.

He attended a high school in Huntington, West Virginia, and later earned a degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903.

Woodson also worked as an author and journalist. It was in those fields that he left an indelible mark on the study of African American history and culture.

In his very extensive career, he recorded many achievements. This article will try to highlight some of the remarkable accomplishments he chalked throughout his career.

Carter Godwin Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History,” was a prominent African American historian, author, and journalist who played a crucial role in recognizing and preserving the history and accomplishments of African Americans. He was born on December 19, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia, and passed away on April 3, 1950.

Introduction of the “Negro History Week”

Together with other prominent figures like George Cleveland Hall, and Alexander L. Jackson, the celebrated American scholar established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Through this association, he initiated “Negro History Week” in February 1926. This week-long celebration was to highlight and promote the teaching of African American history in the United States. He fervently believed in education’s ability to reduce racism by fostering mutual understanding and dispelling ignorance, the main source of racial prejudice. He strategically chose a week that aligned with the birthdays of eminent figures like Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President, and Frederick Douglass, an American abolitionist and social reformer.

Woodson aimed to integrate African American history into public school curriculums, enhancing understanding and acknowledgment of African American contributions and experiences. This initiative eventually evolved into Black History Month, a widely recognized, month-long celebration and reflection on African American history and accomplishments, celebrated both in the U.S. and internationally.

Contribution to Literature

Aside from being a notable historian and educator, Woodson was a prolific writer with substantial contributions to African American literature. One of his most popular works was “The Mis-Education of the Negro”, which was published in 1933. In this influential book, he offered a critical analysis of the American education system, focusing on its Eurocentric bias.

He was also the founder of the academic journal titled “The Journal of Negro History”, now known as “The Journal of African American History”. The publication focused on African-American history. His other popular publications were titled “The History of the Negro Church” and “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861”.

African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson was the son of former slaves and worked as a sharecropper and a miner in his youth. Despite facing many hardships, Woodson remained committed to his education. Throughout his career, Woodson worked relentlessly to integrate African American history into mainstream education and to challenge and rectify the prevailing biases and misconceptions of his time. Image: Portrait of Woodson from West Virginia Collegiate Institute’s El Ojo yearbook picture (1923)

He was a renowned educator

In addition to his literary works, Woodson was also an educator who was known for his substantial work in African American history and education. He became a professor at the distinguished Howard University in the 1910s. His role at this historically black university expanded beyond teaching, as he served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where he played a pivotal role in shaping academic programs and policies and upheld rigorous academic standards.

Harvard University’s second Black American PhD holder

Overcoming formidable racial and socio-economic barriers of his era, the renowned historian earned a PhD from Harvard University, becoming the second black to achieve that after American sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois.

What distinguishes Woodson even further is the fact that he is the only American born to parents who had been enslaved in the country to obtain a PhD. His journey epitomizes perseverance and resilience, highlighting his unwavering commitment to education and his mission to elevate African American history and culture. Woodson’s enduring legacy inspires the pursuit of knowledge and academic excellence irrespective of background or circumstance.

Woodson’s enduring legacy lies in his unwavering commitment to highlighting the significance of African American history, culture, and contributions, influencing generations and reshaping perceptions and narratives around African American heritage. Image: A statue of Woodson at Carter G Woodson Memorial Park in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. sculpted by American sculptor Ray Kaskey.

READ MORE: Most Renowned African-American Civil Rights Activists

Did you know?

  • Carter G. Woodson received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1926.
  • To celebrate Woodson’s legacy in 2018, tech giants Google introduced a doodle on their homepage.
  • Three years before that, a bronze sculpture of him was erected at a local park in Washington, D.C.

Bessie Woodson Yancey: Carter Godwin Woodson’s sister

Carter Godwin Woodson had a sister, Bessie Woodson Yancey (1882 – 1958), who was a noted figure in her own right as a poet, teacher, and activist. Born in Buckingham County, Virginia, Bessie Woodson Yancey played an essential role in the cultural and educational fabric of her time, with her contributions primarily centered on poetry, education, and activism.

Yancey’s poetry collection, “Echoes from the Hills,” published in 1939, is significant as it stands as a potentially pioneering work in the genre of “Affrilachian” children’s literature. “Affrilachian” refers to the culture, geography, and individuals that comprise the African American population residing in the Appalachian region. Yancey’s collection is seen as an early representation of this cultural and literary movement, highlighting the experiences and voices of African Americans in the Appalachian region.

Bessie’s role as a teacher and activist, coupled with her poetic expressions, represented her commitment to addressing and depicting the experiences, challenges, and cultural richness of African Americans, particularly those in the Affrilachian region.

In this way, both Carter Godwin Woodson and his sister Bessie Woodson Yancey contributed significantly to the representation and celebration of African American culture and history, albeit through different avenues.

Conclusion

Carter G. Woodson’s legacy lives on through his pioneering efforts to recognize and preserve African American history. His initiatives have had a lasting impact on the study and appreciation of African American history and culture and have inspired generations of scholars and activists to pursue social justice and equality. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which he founded in 1915, continues his work in promoting the study of African and African American history.

The numerous initiatives, publications, and institutions he established or inspired continue to play a crucial role in highlighting the rich tapestry of African American history, achievements, and culture.

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