Carter G. Woodson was a scholar whose dedication to celebrating the historic contributions of Black people led to the establishment of Black History Month, marked every February since 1976. Woodson fervently believed that Black people should be proud of their heritage and all Americans should understand the largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans.
EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION
Woodson overcame early obstacles to become a prominent historian and author of several notable books on Black Americans. Born in 1875 to illiterate parents who were former slaves, Woodson’s schooling was erratic. He helped out on the family farm when he was a young boy and as a teen worked in the coal mines of West Virginia to help support his father’s meager income. Hungry for education, he was largely self-taught and had mastered common school subjects by the age of 17. Entering high school at the age of 20, Woodson completed his diploma in less than two years.
Woodson worked as a teacher and a school principal before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky. After graduating from college, he became a school supervisor in the Philippines and later traveled throughout Europe and Asia. In addition to earning a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, he became the second Black American after W.E.B. Du Bois Harvard University. He joined the faculty of Howard University, eventually serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
BLACK HISTORY IGNORED
After being barred from attending American Historical Association conferences despite being a dues-paying member, Woodson believed that the white-dominated historical profession had little interest in Black history. He saw African-American contributions “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.”
For Black scholars to study and preserve Black history, Woodson realized he would have to create a separate institutional structure. With funding from several philanthropic foundations, Woodson the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 in Chicago, describing its mission as the scientific study of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history.” The next year he started the scholarly Journal of Negro History, which is published to this day under the name Journal of African American History.
Woodson came to believe that African-American contributions “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.”
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Woodson’s devotion to showcasing the contributions of Black Americans bore fruit in 1926 when he launched Negro History Week in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson’s concept was later expanded into Black History Month.
Woodson died from a heart attack at the age of 74 in 1950. His legacy lives on every February when schools across the nation study Black American history, empowering Black Americans and educating others on the achievements of Black Americans.
Throughout the course of his life, Woodson published many books on Black history, including the A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1919), The History of the Negro Church (1921), and The Negro in Our History (1922).