SAN JOSE, February 26, 2014 – Before the month of February, or Black History Month, comes to a close, it is appropriate to recognize Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, the American historian recognized by other historians as the father of Black History.
Although Black History Month (or African-American History Month) was established in 1976, it was developed upon the foundation of Negro History Week, established fifty years earlier by Dr. Woodson. The original intent in creating Negro History Week was to rectify what Dr. Woodson considered a serious injustice.
As a historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson perceived very real gaps in the complete story of America and understood that the history of African-Americans had been distorted, ignored, or was missing entirely from U.S. history texts. Like a prophet he once stated, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” He responded to the need to correct inaccurate information by digging up the neglected history of African-Americans that had been buried in the dust of the past. Before he took up the cause of developing the serious study of Black history, there was a general indifference, and in some cases deliberate neglect, among historians with regard to such history.
Carter Godwin Woodson was the first student whose parents were former slaves and the second black American (W. E. B. DuBois was the first) to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He was born on December 19, 1875, in New Canton, of Buckingham County, Virginia. His parents were Anne Eliza and James Henry Woodson, and because they had been slaves neither had an opportunity to learn to read or write. His father had helped Union troops during the Civil War, and after the war worked as a carpenter to support his large, poor family. And, as in the case with poor farming families, Carter Woodson had to help on the family farm, which placed education as a lower priority. Despite finding it difficult to regularly attend school, through self-instruction, he was able to grasp the basics of a primary school education by the age of seventeen.
Apparently, Carter’s family had moved to West Virginia when his father heard that in Huntington a school for black students was going to be built. However, work again became a priority as Carter needed to earn money as a miner in the Fayette County coal fields, and could only attend school a few months each year. Finally, in 1895, at the age of twenty, Carter Woodson entered Douglass High School, and was able to earn his diploma in less than two years. After he graduated, Woodson taught school locally, and became the principal of the high school from which he graduated in 1900.
Education became Dr. Woodson’s life. He pursued an education, like other famous African-Americans, as a means of climbing out of poverty. He eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in European history from the University of Chicago, and ultimately completed his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912. Along his path to receiving a PhD from Harvard University, he took serious note of the distorted information and misrepresentations, or the lack of written information available to the general public regarding African-Americans in U.S. history. Upon completion of his education, he dedicated himself to the mission of helping to educate all American people about the history of African-Americans.
Woodson took up the cause of filling the obvious void and correcting the misinformation prevalent in the history of African-Americans in the U.S. Dr. Woodson explained that African-American contributions “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” His intent was to overcome this and encourage other academics and scholars to begin to earnestly study such history and to ensure that schools taught it. He wrote several books on the subject and during World War I, Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History by 1915. A year later, he began the publication of the Journal of Negro History which was renamed the Journal of African American History in 2002.
After ten years of lobbying schools and various organizations to participate, he created Negro History Week in 1926 as a way of promoting the awareness of African American history to the general public. He selected the second week in February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Over the years, his Negro History Week evolved into what is now Black History Month, celebrated each February since 1976. Today because of Carter Woodson’s efforts, it is virtually impossible to find a U.S. History textbook that makes no reference to Black history, and why students across the country from the elementary school level to the college level study the history of African- Americans as part of American history courses.
Dr. Woodson credited his father for helping shape the course of his life; he later wrote that his father taught him, “learning to accept insult, to compromise on principle, to mislead your fellow man, or to betray your people, is to lose your soul.” If all fathers could inspire their children so, it would have an incredibly positive impact upon the entire world. In his own lifetime, Professor Woodson developed his own philosophy of history, which he insisted, was not the mere gathering of facts. He believed that the intent behind studying history was to arrive at some “reasonable interpretation of the facts” because “history is more than political and military records of peoples and nations.” He believed history “must include some description of the social conditions of the period being studied.”
Dr. Woodson did not imagine that there would ever be a Black History Month, nor did he believe that Negro History Week needed to be perpetuated forever. According to the NAACP Web site entry on Dr. Woodson, he “often said that he hoped the time would come when Negro History Week would be unnecessary; when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of Black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.” According to historian John H. Franklin, Dr. Woodson “continued to express hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness.” Because of his efforts the study of Black history became a more acceptable and legitimate academic pursuit and area of intellectual inquiry.
In many respects, it is possible that Black History Month has fulfilled what Dr. Woodson set out to do and in that light, perhaps it has outlived its usefulness. Morgan Freeman, the renowned actor, in an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, expressed the opinion that the nation should not relegate the history of African-Americans to only one month a year. Freeman believes it should just be merged into American history and not dealt with as a separate reality. He may be right when he states that African-American history is just another part of American history, but that perception is because of Dr. Woodson’s exhaustive efforts, and he probably would have agreed.
Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, a distinguished author, educator, editor, publisher, and American historian deserves to be remembered for his enthusiasm for education as a strong foundation for young Black Americans to become productive citizens of the United States, and honored for his efforts to restore dignity to America.