Carter G. Woodson: The West Virginia Connection

By Bickley, Ancella R. | Appalachian Heritage, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Carter G. Woodson: The West Virginia Connection

Bickley, Ancella R., Appalachian Heritage


In Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington, West Virginia, a granite stone marks the graves of the parents and some other family members of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the "Father of Black History." The stone stands as mute testimony to the Woodson family's association with the state and to the connection that Dr. Woodson, an internationally known scholar, also had with West Virginia. Among those buried in the family plot are Dr. Woodson's mother and father, Anna Eliza Riddle Woodson and James Henry Woodson, and his sister, Susie. Also buried in the same cemetery, but not in the family plot, are three other of Dr. Woodson's siblings: his sisters Bessie and Cora, and his brother, Robert.

Although Carter G. Woodson was born in Virginia, he migrated to West Virginia, where he spent some formative years. After serving what he termed as a "six years' apprenticeship in the West Virginia coal mines," (1) he finished high school in the state and began his career as a teacher there.

Even after he permanently settled elsewhere and furthered his life's calling as a teacher, researcher, writer and "drum major" for black history, his enduring professional and family connections in West Virginia kept him involved with the state over a long period of time. One brother resided in Beckley. His parents, another brother, and one sister made Huntington their home as did his Aunt Betty, his father's sister, and her husband, Reverend Nelson Barnett, one of the city's pioneering black ministers

Dr. Woodson's parents had been enslaved in Virginia. His mother, Anne Eliza Riddle Woodson in Buckingham County, and his father, James Henry Woodson, in Fluvanna County. (2) The couple married in 1867 and eventually became the parents of nine children: William, Cora, Robert, Carter, Susie, Edward, Bessie, and two who did not survive infancy. (3)

In the 1870s, along with a party of other previously enslaved black people, including the Barnetts, the Woodsons moved to the area of West Virginia that would become Huntington. Lifelong Huntington resident, Edna Smith Duckworth, suggested that this group of the formerly enslaved may have been recruited by C. P. Huntington to help build the C & O Railroad there. She referred to them as the "black pioneers" of Huntington and indicated that they supplied some of the labor that helped to create the city. (4)

Even though Dr. Woodson's parents had been enslaved and had seen families separated, neither James nor Anne Eliza seemed to have lost their own concepts of family through their servitude. For example, as a young girl, Anne Eliza Riddle was willing to sacrifice herself for her family. When her owner decided to sell some of the family in order to raise money, she convinced him to sell her instead of her mother so that the mother and younger children could remain together. The Riddle family was further separated when one of these children was lost to their mother during the Civil War. Seeing him alone while his mother was in the fields, Union soldiers took a fancy to him and took him with them when they moved on. When the troops reached White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, they left the boy with a family there. The family who received him did not know where the boy came from, and he could not tell them, nor did his birth family know what had become of him. (5)

While Mrs. Woodson was living in Huntington in the 1870s, however, a man from White Sulphur Springs who was working in Huntington heard her speak of her lost brother. He remembered a man from his hometown who had the name that Mrs. Woodson used and launched inquiries in his home area about him. Through these efforts, Mrs. Woodson was re-united with her brother, Robert D. Riddle, (6) who lived his entire adult life in the Ronceverte area of West Virginia, becoming a teacher and farmer.

Life in West Virginia must not have met the Woodsons' expectations fully, for in 1874 they went back to Buckingham County, Virginia, and remained there until 1893.

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