Tribute to the Pioneer Patriarch of African American History: Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)

Article excerpt

It is difficult to discuss the discipline of Black history or the historical significance of Black History Month without paying tribute to Carter Godwin Woodson. This Black thinker and his respective contributions should be viewed as a significant step toward the liberation of Black minds. Secondly, any people seeking to empower themselves must develop a passionate desire to recapture, redefine, and employ history as a tool of analysis. Without this agenda, their survival and continued development would be seriously jeopardized.

Carter G. Woodson was one of nine children, born to former slaves, Annie and James Woodson, in 1875. His formative years were spent in New Canton, Virginia. The hardships of poverty were a constant threat to the Woodson family during these early years. Unable to attend school on a regular basis, young Woodson developed the habit of self-instruction. John Henrik Clarke reports, "Woodson mastered all the fundamentals of common school subjects by the time he was seventeen." (2)

In 1892, the Woodson family moved to Huntington, West Virginia. During the next three years, young Woodson worked in local coal mines to provide additional income for family expenses. Finally, at the age of twenty, Woodson entered Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington and earned a high school certificate in less than two years. He continued his studies at Berea College in Kentucky and spent several summers attending the University of Chicago. Eventually, Woodson was awarded a B.A. and M.A. degree from the University of Chicago during the years of 1907-1908. Ambitious and desiring to continue his interest in history, Woodson entered Harvard University in 1909. Prior to Harvard, he traveled in Europe and Asia and spent one semester at the Sorbonne in Paris. This exposure proved to be an asset in the elite conscious Harvard environment. In 1912, Woodson became the second Black student to earn a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. (3)

After Harvard, Woodson rose to the top of his profession. From 1919-1920, he served as Dean of the Howard University School of Liberal Arts. Following a conflict with the president over the university's educational policies, Woodson resigned. From 1920-1922, he was employed as a dean at West Virginia Institute (later known as Virginia State College). Earl E. Thorpe concluded, "Apparently for the same reason that he resigned from Howard University, and because he desired to live in Washington ... to continue his research, he resigned from West Virginia Institute and gave up classroom teaching as a major interest." (4)

Dr. Woodson had the credentials to establish a secure career in the Black academic world. But, he chose to pursue the study of what was then called Negro History. Many of his Black colleagues simply concluded that Woodson was crazy! This attitude reflected the contempt that many highly educated Blacks had for the common masses of Black people. Success could only be attained by white standards and white recognition. Why waste time with "Negro History?"

Many of the Black elite of the 1920s were mental victims of an atmosphere and an educational system which degraded African American people and relegated Africa to an obscure component in the history of world civilization. Woodson felt that, "The so-called modern education ... does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples,... The philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap, and to kill the oppressed. Negroes daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained ..." In response to some highly educated Blacks who denounced Woodson's attempt to rescue and redefine Black History as a meaningless endeavor Woodson boldly stated, "The difficulty is that the 'educated Negro' is compelled to live and move among his own people when he has been taught to despise them . …