Portrait of African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson as a young man. (Photo/New River Gorge National River website, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States Government.)

Carter G. Woodson seemed born to defy the odds.

The future father of Black history came into the world on Dec. 19, 1875, in New Canton, Va., during a time both of upheaval and promise. Twelve years before, President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing Black slaves from centuries of cruel bondage. Ten years before, Confederate and Union forces—including Blacks—finally laid down their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War and the demolition of the institution of slavery. And then came Reconstruction.

“Woodson was born in 1875 toward the end of the Black Reconstruction period—about 10 years of enhanced freedom for Black people,” said Alvin Thornton, professor of political science at Howard University. “I don’t think Carter Woodson would have been able to do what he did if he were not born during that period. Black people were able to do things—they were able to run for office, vote and seek educational opportunities.”

Under the political auspices of Radical Republicans, former slaves or “freedmen” became politically active. In Virginia and throughout the South, they joined organizations such as the pro-Republican Union League, holding conventions, and demanding universal male suffrage and equal treatment under the law, as well as demanding disfranchisement of ex-Confederates and the seizure of their plantations.

In fact, according to {The African-American Odyssey: Volume II, 4th Edition}, during the 1870s, about 1,465 Black men held political office in the South. Among the first to serve in the U.S. Congress were Rep. Robert C. DeLarge, of South Carolina; Rep. Jefferson Long, of Georgia; Sen. Hiram R. Revels, of Mississippi and several others.

It was during that time that Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which sought “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights.”

“Be it enacted,” the law read, “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”

But the time was also one of economic instability. Virginia, the site of many Civil War battles, had been devastated. Railroads and other infrastructure lay in ruins; once-proud plantations had been reduced to burnt-out carcasses. Scores of former slaves had no jobs and had to depend on the Freedmen’s Bureau for basics such as clothing, food, water and health care.

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Black women sewing at the Freedmen’s Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. (Photo/From a sketch by Jas E. Taylor/ Public Domain)

Woodson’s parents, James and Anne Eliza were former slaves and, like many of their peers, were abjectly poor. “Carter, one of nine children, said he often left the dinner table hungry and sought food in nearby woods. After he went to bed on Saturday nights, his mother washed the clothing he had been wearing so he could don clean clothes to church on Sundays,” author Burnis R. Morris writes in Woodson’s biography on the website of the Association for the Study of African American  Life and History (ASALH), which Woodson founded.

James Woodson, a Civil War veteran, learned carpentry from his father and did masonry for a living. It was a hard life, but unlike others, he refused to hire out his children to supplement the family income. Carter said his father “believed that such a life was more honorable than to serve one as a menial,” Morris cites.

Such dire straits meant Woodson had to work from an early age, however. He worked the family’s 5-6 acre farm, which was situated on poor land, but produced enough crops to feed the family. As a teen, when the family migrated to Huntington, W.Va., to take advantage of burgeoning opportunities, Woodson joined his older brother Robert in working to rebuild the railroad from Thurmond to Loup Creek; he also did a six-year stint in the coalfields at Nuttallburg, in Fayette County.

Woodson’s responsibilities gave him little time to take advantage of the free education then available to Blacks. After the Civil War, missionary and aid groups from the North worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau to build colleges, institutes and normal schools to educate former slaves throughout the South.

Beginning by offering elementary and secondary education after a decade Black colleges soon offered academic and trade course and professional and military training. In fact, one of the most enduring and widely recognized achievement of the Bureau was its creation of universal, public school systems.

Young Woodson’s had a spotty school attendance record, however; he attended only on days of rain and snow, when he was not needed to work the farm.

“To a large extent Woodson would be self-educated,” said Daryl Scott, executive director, ASALH.

It was not until 1895 – when Woodson was 18 – that he would enter high school—the all-Black Douglass High School in Huntington—but he graduated two years later.


African American laborers on the U.S. Military Railroad in Northern Virginia, c. 1862 or 1863. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs)

“There was something innate about him,” said Thornton about Woodson’s ability to succeed in school despite the challenges.

Scott agreed. “When you realize that only 2 percent of Americans were graduating from high school at the turn of the 19th century, then you know this is a guy who truly believes in education and is driven by something out of the ordinary.”

In the fall of 1897, Woodson enrolled at Berea College in Kentucky. It was close to his Huntington, W.Va., home, but more than that, it was one of the few higher education institutions at the time that promoted interracial education. The experience would likely shape his views about race relations. He graduated in 1903.

Once again, Woodson seemed to be favored by time. Though born during Reconstruction, he came at its tail end when the Klu Klux Klan began to rise in power and influence, spreading hate and terror among the ex-slaves; he grew up at a time of growing post-war resentment among Whites still smarting from the complications of dealing with free labor; and he entered adulthood when conservative Democrats finally wrested control from the Radical Republicans, passing laws and constitutional amendments to disenfranchise African Americans though poll taxes and literacy tests, and to restore the idea of White supremacy by the entrenchment of Jim Crow segregation.

“Not long after Woodson leaves Berea, Kentucky passes a law that Blacks and Whites cannot be educated together,” Scott said. “If he (Woodson) had come a couple of years later, he would not have been able to matriculate there.”

While attending Berea, Woodson taught school in Winona, W.Va., and later served as principal of his high school alma mater.

In November 1903, he left for the Philippines to serve as a teacher and supervisor. The experience reinforced what would later form the basis of his life’s work in America.

“What he learned from that experience is that you have to teach people based on their own experiences. History is not simply Western; it’s not simply about elites; it’s about ordinary people and them knowing themselves,” Scott said.

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After several more travels, Woodson returned home to continue his studies as a full-time student at the University of Chicago. His work at Berea was deemed unacceptable, but that didn’t stop him—he worked hard and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously. It was there, according to A Life in Black History: Carter G. Woodson by Jacqueline Goggin, that Woodson began to pursue his passion for documenting Black history. In February 1908, he wrote W.E.B. DuBois with statistics about the Black Church because DuBois at the time had amassed research and publications about African- American achievement for scholarly research. It is believed, however, that he may have been deterred by his professors and eventually chose French diplomatic policy towards Germany for his dissertation.

With his advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, Woodson enrolled at Harvard University, and in 1912, became the second African American, after W.E.B. DuBois, to obtain a doctoral degree from the Ivy League school.

The accomplishment was an astonishing one in that time, especially for someone of Woodson’s background, Scott said.

“To talk about a Ph.D. was so rare…. So Woodson was a freak of nature,” the ASALH director said.

But life at Harvard was not without its challenges, historians said. Woodson had believed the institution to be a place that was liberal and racially enlightened. Instead, he found instructors were propagating the same, widely-touted misinformation about Black intellect and Black—therefore American—history, and some tried to dissuade him from his goal of rewriting the historical record.

“Harvard University has ruined more Negro minds than bad whiskey,” Woodson is quoted as saying later on.

After graduation Woodson continued to teach in Washington, D.C.—he had funded his education through teaching jobs at schools such as Armstrong Manual Training High School and eventually M Street High School, a high school for the District’s Black elite. It was at the M Street High School that Woodson introduced Black history into the schools’ curriculum. And, it is while teaching there that he defied his Harvard critics and others, publishing his first tome on African-American history, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, in 1915. He also travels to Chicago and establish the Association for the Study of Negro of Life and History (which later becomes the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.)

“He’s a high school teacher and what he presumes to do in establishing this association is take on the whole academy,” Scott said. “He was prepared to do intellectual combat with the leaders of the Western world and all the great universities who had insisted for generations that Black people have no history. And he wasn’t even a university professor.”

Next week, learn about the people who influenced Woodson’s life and work.

AFRO Archivist JaZette Marshburn contributed to this story.



Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO