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Woodson, Carter G. : Home

Written by Sona Apbasova, '15

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson


Carter Godwin Woodson was born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia. He was born into a family of nine children. He was born after ten years the American Civil War ended. Thus, Woodson was of a generation that grew up in an American society were the hardships and discriminations caused by slavery were still alive. As the author, Robert Durden states, he grew up in “the lingering shadow of slavery.” His father, James Henry Woodson, was a run-away slave from a plantation close to James River, in Richmond, Virginia. James Woodson escaped after a conflict with his owner, joined the Union army to fight for the freedom of black Americans, and earned his freedom around 1864. After the Civil War, he worked as a carpenter and farmer. Carter G. Woodson’s mother, Anne Eliza Riddle was also a slave, but “fortunate” enough to become literate from her white mistress. Thus, Woodson’s mother taught him and his siblings how to read and write from an early age. This further sparked Woodson’s passion for education, and through his parents’ and grandparents’ stories about slavery he became interested in African-American history. His parents were devout Baptists. The Woodson children attended Sunday school at their church, as well as a one-room school for four months of the year.

As a teenager, he had to halt his education in order to work and financially his family. In 1892, at the age of seventeen he left to West Virginia to find a job to support his family. First, he worked laying railroad tracks, and then he worked as a coal miner in Fayette County. While working at the coalmines, he would read African-American newspapers to Civil War veterans. Thus, he continued his education in such informal fashion by learning much about the Civil War history, politics and economics from veterans and the newspapers that he read to them.


Woodson continued his high school education at the Douglass High School, West Virginia, and completed it within two years at the age of twenty. Dr. Woodson attended Berea College from 1897 to 1903. During his first year he experienced financial hardships in paying for his school in Berea, thus he dropped out to earn money. He taught miner’s children at a school in West Virginia, and in 1900 served as the principal at the African American high school in Huntington, West Virginia. Yet, in 1901, he did return to Berea as a part-time student to complete his BA’s degree. He lived and studied in Berea at the height of racism and segregation of black students due to Jim Crow segregation system. And after his graduation 1903, with the passage of the Day Law 1904 admission of African American students reduced to 16 per cent and soon completely stopped. Such experiences of racism and injustice further drove Dr. Woodson in achieving his academic and career goals to become an African American of great influence in twentieth century American society.

Even after graduating from Berea College, Dr. Woodson did not stop in pursuing his higher education. While in Berea, he also attended summer sessions offered by the University of Chicago. In 1906, he spent a semester at the University in Sorbonne in France. In 1907, he attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained another B.A. degree along with his Master’s degree. The topic of his M.A. degree thesis was on European history, although initially he wanted to write on the history of black churches. In 1908, to “quench his thirst” for education, he attended Harvard University to earn his Ph.D. Yet, it was an arduous path to earn his Ph.D. degree. After completion of his first year at Harvard, Woodson faced two obstacles: first, he had to pass general examinations in European and American history; second, he needed to complete his doctoral dissertation. In 1910, he successfully passed the general examination on European history from the first try, and the examinations on American history from a second try.

Another challenge that he faced was financial, because he did not receive a fellowship to pay for his second year. Thus, he applied for a teaching job in public schools of Washington D.C., and in July 1909 was accepted to teach. This particular opportunity to work was not a reason for Dr. Woodson to give up on pursuing his Ph.D. degree; rather, it was a chance to earn enough money to pay for his doctorate studies, as well as a fortunate opportunity to do his doctorate research work at the same time at the Library of Congress. His dissertation topic was on the formation of the state of West Virginia during the American Civil War. He took advantage of extensive resources at the Library of Congress, but also gained additional information from his neighbors and relatives in West Virginia during his summer visits. Despite the hard work, at first the Harvard committee did not approve his dissertation. However, in April 1912 after another lengthy hard work and revision of his dissertation research, Woodson became the first and only African American to receive a Ph.D. degree in the field of history. Yet, such a distinction served Dr. Woodson as the beginning of many more academic adventures.


After earning his Ph.D., Dr. Woodson continued to teach in Washington D.C. In 1911, he started teaching American History, English, French and Spanish languages at the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School – nation’s best high school for African Americans. He taught there for six years, until 1917.

Prior to pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, Dr. Woodson worked as an English teacher in Philippines. Since Philippines came under control of the United States after 1898 war with Spain, the American government sent scholars and teachers to the island to educate the natives to English language. Dr. Woodson was immediately attracted to such an opportunity to travel, as well as earn a better salary as an English teacher in Manila, than a school principal in West Virginia or Washington D.C. For more than two years, he taught the Philippine youth to skills of farming, health and English language. Even while working as a teacher, he was a student himself. He took special language courses through the University of Chicago’s mail course service, and gained language skills in Spanish and French. By fall of 1907, Dr. Woodson have traveled around Asia, Europe and Africa for academic purposes and returned to United States.

He aspired to dedicate himself in educating the American youth, both white and black, on the African American history. His path on becoming a researcher and a scholar of African-American history has not been without obstacles and challenges. He witnessed the stereotypical, unjust and exaggerated representations of the African-Americans and their role in American history. Thus, he aimed at teaching the truth about African American’s role in the American history. Along with many like-minded African-American scholars and friends, Dr. Woodson formed a “Historical Alliance,” that would aim to educate the true version of African-American history. However, by September 9, 1915 their alliance transformed and established itself into an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

He proved many professional historians and scholars, who did not believe of African Americans’ contributions to the American history – including his professor Edward Channing – that African-Americans indeed have played a significant part in the American history. Thus, by raising the awareness about the African American history, Dr. Woodson became known as the Father of Black History.

In 1916, Dr. Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History, which published articles by several well-known and respected African Americans like, Charles H. Wesley, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus W. Jernegan. Dr. Woodson worked as a history professor and dean of the school of Liberal Arts at Howard University. In 1920, he left Howard University to work as dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute. There, starting from 1921, Dr. Woodson created the Associated Publishers Inc. that would give African American authors more opportunities to publish scholarly works on their culture and history. He retired in 1922, but continued to work tirelessly in keeping the association running. Moreover, within twenty years he completed and published many books of his own. From 1936, the general public, teachers and students also have obtained access and awareness about African American history through the monthly Negro History Bulletin. Following his death, many of these organizations and journals initially organized by Dr. Woodson went through financial hardships, but managed to stay active to the present day.


Dr. Woodson did not marry. His intensive activism in scholarly research and education became his life. Robert Durden states, that to some extent Dr. Woodson was “married to his job.” In addition to his work as a professor, historian, author and an editor, Dr. Woodson was also part of civil rights movement. He was a member of NAACP and the National Urbal League. He was active in anti-lynching campaign and supported various black organizations.

Dr. Woodson died on April 3, 1950 in Washington D.C. The scholarly research and study of African American history continues on long after his death, as a legacy of his hard work and exemplary life. Throughout the nation, there are various academic and research centers, associations, organizations, and institutes that named after Carter G. Woodson, and which follow the goal of further promoting research and studies on African American history and culture.

Initially established as the Negro History Week in 1926 by Dr. Woodson; now celebrated annually during the month of February as the Black History Month, serves as a continuous reminder of all African-Americans’ achievements and contributions to the American history, culture and community. Moreover, there are various centers and schools, museums and organizations around the nation that are dedicated to him. In 1974, the National Council for the Social Studies established the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, which is given to authors who write books on social science, ethnic and racial issues.


Dr. Woodson’s most famous book is The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933).  It is still in print.

  • The Education of the Negro prior to 1861: a History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the beginning of slavery to the Civil War. New York: Putnam's, 1915. Repr. Ayer Co., 1968
  • A Century of Negro Migration. Washington, D.C.: ASNLH, 1918. Repr. Russell, 1969
  • The History of the Negro Church. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1921.
  • The Negro in Our History. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1922.
  • Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the Unites States in 1830: Together with absentee ownership of slaves in the United States in 1830, ed. Washington: ASNLH., 1924; Repr. Negro Univ. Press.
  • Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830: Together with brief treatment of the free Negro. Washington: ASNLH., 1925.
  • Negro Orators and their Orations, ed. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1926. Repr. Russell, 1969. PS663.N4.W6
  • The Mind of the Negro as reflected in letters written during the crisis, 1800-1860, ed. Washington: ASNLH., 1926. Repr.
  • Negro Makers of History. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1928.
  • African Myths together with proverbs: a supplementary reader composed of folk tales from various parts of Africa. Adapted to use of children in the public schools. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1928.
  • The Negro as a Businessman, joint author with John H. Harmon, Jr. and Arnett G. Lindsay. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1929.
  • The Negro Wage Earner, joint author with Lorenzo J. Greene. Washington: ASNLH., 1930. Repr. AMS Press.
  • The Rural Negro. Washington: ASNLH., 1930. Repr. Russell, 1969.
  • The Mis-Education of the Negro. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1933. Repr. AMS Press, 1972.
  • The Negro Professional Man and the Community: with special emphasis on the Physician and the Lawyer. Washington: ASNLH., 1934 Repr. Negro University Press, 1969. Johnson Reprints
  • The Story of the Negro Retold. Washington: Association Publishers, 1935.
  • The African Background Outlined. Washington: ASNLH., 1936.
  • African Heroes and Heroines. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1939.