Our Alumni are the Coolest: Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History”

This is the second entry in what I hope will be a semi-regular feature dedicated to our amazing alumni. Today I will pay homage to Carter G. Woodson, the historian and Berea alum responsible for the creation of Negro History Week, which later became the annual celebration we call Black History Month. As Black History Month 2013 winds down, I believe we would be remiss if we failed to honor Dr. Woodson, who first demanded that the legacies of the many African Americans who came before us be acknowledged and celebrated. Speaking to the need to preserve black history, Woodson said “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated” (Goggin).

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Carter G. Woodson was one of nine children born to former slaves on a farm in Virginia. During his teens, his family moved to West Virginia and Woodson began working in the coal mines. Determined to secure an education for himself, Woodson enrolled in high school at the age of twenty and completed four years of studies in just two years. After graduation, he attended Berea College and then Lincoln University, ultimately returning to Berea to graduate in 1903, just one year before the Day Law made interracial education illegal in the state of Kentucky.

After graduating from Berea, Woodson went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in European history. In 1912, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard; he was only the second African American to have earned a Ph.D. from Harvard at the time (the first was W.E.B. Du Bois). Even more remarkable still, he was and is the first and only black American of slave parents to ever earn a Ph.D. in history.

In 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the first historical society dedicated exclusively to research on African Americans. In that same year, he also published his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. Soon after, he founded two academic journals – the Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin – as well as a publishing house, the Associated Publishers. He spent the remainder of his life publishing in the field of African American history, ultimately producing four monographs, five textbooks, thirteen articles, and multiple sociological studies and edited collections.

In addition to writing prolifically, Dr. Woodson taught at the high school and college levels before serving administratively as a Dean at Howard University and West Virginia State College. While all of the accomplishments make him a man worthy of praise, the reason I thought of him today was because of the debt all history lovers owe him for his founding of Negro History Week (now Black History Month) back in 1926. As W.E.B. Du Bois said about this contribution, Woodson “literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon life, thought, and action in the United States. I know of no one man who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration” (“Carter G. Woodson”).

Sources

“Carter G. Woodson.” Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1992. Biography In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

“Carter Godwin Woodson.” American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

Goggin, Jacqueline. “Carter G. Woodson.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Gale, 2006. Biography In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

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