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Carter Godwin Woodson (1875–1950)

Education and Early Career, The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History

Teacher, scholar, publisher and administrator, Carter Godwin Woodson articulated ideas that are antecedents to the discipline of black studies; however, he is best known as the "father of black history."

Woodson was born in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia, to former slaves Ann Eliza (Riddle) and James Woodson. The oldest of nine children, Woodson labored on his father's farm and in the coal mines of West Virginia. Attending elementary school only a few months per year, Woodson was mostly self-taught. At age nineteen he enrolled in the Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia, where he excelled and completed the four-year curriculum in under two years.

Education and Early Career

Woodson attended Berea College in Kentucky for two years, until the institution closed its doors to blacks. Woodson took courses at the University of Chicago, returning to Berea (when blacks were readmitted) to complete his bachelor's degree in literature in 1903. Securing a position as general superintendent of education in Manila, the Philippines, for the United States Bureau of Insular Affairs, Woodson taught English, health, and agriculture. He resigned for health reasons in 1907, and traveled to Asia, North Africa, and Europe.

Woodson applied for graduate study at the University of Chicago; however, school officials would not recognize his Berea degree. This situation forced Woodson to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago, which he received in 1907. His master's thesis, completed in 1908, examined French diplomatic relations with Germany in the eighteenth century. Woodson then enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard University. After completing coursework, he sought employment in Washington, D.C., so that he might have access to the Library of Congress. While teaching courses in American history, French, Spanish, and English at local Washington, D.C., high schools, Woodson researched and completed his doctoral dissertation on secession, entitled "The Disruption in Virginia," in 1912. At the time, he was the first African American of slave ancestry and the second African American, after W. E.B. Du Bois, to receive a doctorate from Harvard.

Woodson's desire to move into the academic world met with frustration. He failed to get his dissertation published and discovered that his professional options were limited. Committed to writing black history, he published another manuscript, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915). Quickly tiring of academic politics, he sought other avenues to advance his passion for the scientific study of blacks and black history.

The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History

In 1915 Woodson, with associates Dr. George C. Hall, James E. Stamps, William B. Hartgrave, and Alexander L. Jackson, met at a downtown Chicago YMCA to establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), later changed to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Founded as a historical society devoted to the research of black America, the organization was meant to be ideologically and politically independent. There were three organizational tiers within ASNLH: branch members who paid dues; professional historians who conducted research; and a publication department. In 1916 the association established a quarterly, the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson evolved a philosophy about black history: He wanted to free black history from white intellectual bias and present blacks as active participants in history. Additionally, he wanted both black and white people to be exposed to the contributions of blacks. He believed that black history should be a part of the school curriculum. Finally, Woodson saw value in James Robinson's "new" history that asserted that history could serve social change. His passion became obsession as he worked to protect and promote the ASNLH. He never married, and friends and supporters noted that Woodson worked day and night for his association.

Financing ASNLH proved difficult as member dues were never sufficient. Woodson raised funds from white corporate philanthropists; however, frequent disagreements and accusations of "radicalism" forced him to compromise his beliefs and declare his loyalty to American capitalism.

Struggling to support the organization and himself, Woodson accepted a position as principal at the Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C., in 1918. From there he moved on to become the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Howard University. Clashing with Howard president J. Stanley Durkee, Woodson left after two years to become dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute.

After 1922, Woodson was finally able to work full-time for ASNLH, conduct research, and publish prolifically. The spread of Pan-Africanism, Garveyism, and the emergent Renaissance cultural movement were indications of heightened racial consciousness among African Americans. This climate provided support for "race men." Woodson founded Associated Publishers, Incorporated, in 1921 to produce books endorsed by the association. By 1925 the Journal of Negro History had published ten monographs and many articles. Woodson expanded his public presence by writing articles for mass consumption, including many newspaper editorials and regular contributions in the Garvey organization's Negro World.

In 1926 Woodson and his association made their indelible imprint on America and the world. He began the celebration of Negro History Week–a special commemoration of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Additionally it would celebrate the achievements of blacks throughout history. In 1976 this celebration was expanded to the widely celebrated Black History Month.

In 1933 Woodson published his most celebrated work, The Mis-Education of the Negro. This penetrating work critiqued the established school curriculum as grounded in racism and Eurocentric thought. Such education, he believed, could only result in the colonial subordination of African people in America. The often quoted passage, "When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions…. He will find his proper place and willstay in it" (p. viii) points to Woodson's assessment of the deleterious effect of existing schooling on the black psyche. Educated blacks would dissociate themselves from the majority of their race, and black people could never achieve unity and racial advancement with this type of education.

Concerned that the Journal of Negro History only reached a limited audience, Woodson established the Negro History Bulletin in 1937. Aimed at schools and young people, the Bulletin cost very little and used accessible language. Woodson's commitment to make black history accessible to elementary and secondary school students led him to write books for school children, which were often accompanied by study guides, chapter questions, and recommended projects.

Throughout the 1940s, the widely respected Woodson worked to popularize black history, maintain the ASNHL, and continue publication efforts. He was honored with the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People along with several honorary degrees. The U.S. Postal Service honored him with a memorial stamp in February 1984.


GOGGIN, JACQUELINE. 1993. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

HINES, DARLENE C. 1986. "Carter G. Woodson, White Philanthropy and Negro Historiography." The History Teacher 19:405–425.

WOODSON, CARTER G. 1915. The Education of the Negro prior to 1861. New York: Putnam.

WOODSON, CARTER G. 1998. The Mis-Education of the Negro. (1933). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

WOODSON, CARTER G. 1971. The African Background Outlined. (1936). New York: Negro Universities Press.


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