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CARTER G. WOODSON

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson is widely regarded as the Father of African-American History. Because of his life-long efforts, African-American History is a well-respected field of study today. He is also credited with the establishment of Black History Month, now a permanent fixture in the American calendar.

He was born in 1875 in the U.S. State of Virginia to James Henry Woodson and Anne Eliza Riddle. His parents had been former slaves in Virginia before the Civil War. The Woodsons though poor financially, were rich in morals, drawing from their deep baptist roots. They instilled these strong moral values on their children. Born just 10 years after the Emancipation, the young Woodson heard numerous stories of slavery at the dinner table; stories that ignited his quest for African-American history.

Carter G. had to struggle early in life to learn how to read and write. Luckily for him his mom Anne Eliza Riddle had been taught how to read and write by her slave masters. She gladly passed on the knowledge to the young Carter. Carter's father however never learnt to read or write so he relied on him to read newspaper articles. Young Carter's reading and writing skills paid off in 1892 when he moved to West Virginia and got a job at the coal mines. One of his fellow black coal miners ran a snack bar at his house for all the miners. Since the snack bar owner could not read, he struck a deal with Carter G. whereby he would get free snacks in exchange for reading aloud newspaper articles to the gathered coal miners at the end of every workday. Hey young Carter G. could use some "perks" at the workplace!!!

The newspaper-reading sessions turned into lively discussions that helped Carter and his fellow miners learn a lot about their African-American roots. They began subscribing to a lot of newspapers, both regional and national. In 1895 Carter G. moved to Huntington, West Virginia, where he enrolled in the only black high school in the area. His parents had also relocated to Huntington, where his father took up a job in the railroad yards. It took Carter only 2 years to finish his High School studies after which he enrolled at Berea College in kentucky. Berea had been established in 1858 by an anti-slavery white Kentuckian who was keen to see blacks get educated.

Lack of fees made Carter drop out of Berea College in 1898. He went on to teach at a school in West Virginia attended by coal miners' children. In 1900 he was appointed Principal of the High School he had attended in West Virginia. In 1901 he returned to Berea college on a part-time basis and graduated in 1903. After graduating from Berea in 1903 he decided to venture abroad to the Phillipines to teach English to the youth there. Many American students at that time chose to go to the Phillipine Islands to teach English after the U.S. acquired the Islands from Spain in 1898. Other territories wrestled from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898 included the Islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Woodson returned to the U.S. in 1906 and in 1907 with some of the money he had saved in the Phillipines, embarked on a voyage that took him to Asia, Africa and Europe. His travels around the world confounded his earlier belief that Historians the world over paid little attention to African history as a whole, not just African-American history. He returned to the U.S. in the Fall of 1907 and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he took both undergraduate and graduate courses at the same time. In 1908 he obtained his Bachelors Degree in History from the University of Chicago and in the same year completed courses for his Masters Degree in History at the same University. He then proceeded to Harvard University for his Ph.D.

In 1909 he dropped out of Harvard for lack of fees and began teaching in the public high schools of Washington,DC. Among the schools he taught in Washington,DC was M Street High School(later Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School), then the best High School for African-Americans in DC. All this time he was also working towards his Ph.D from Harvard. In April 1912, he finally obtained his Ph.D in History from Harvard, the first for an African-American with once-enslaved parents.

Leading up to the time Carter obtained his Ph.D, he had observed a lot of inaccuracies in texts that talked about African-American history. This was especially so in texts by white authors. The inaccuracies ranged from simple mis-statement of facts to blatant falsehoods. What annoyed him even more was that no one seemed to challenge these inaccuracies, some of which formed the basis of movies. Case in question was the 1915 hit movie The Birth of a Nation that was based on a book by Thomas Dixon Jr., a known racist. This movie that depicted blacks as childish, with an intent on attacking white women received rave reviews in the U.S., even by then President Woodrow Wilson who had it shown in the White House. Outraged by this state of affairs, on September 9th 1915 Woodson and his friends established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson also intended for the new organization to publish a scholarly journal that would present African-American history in the same organized and scientific manner as histories of other races. In January 1916, the first issue of the Journal of Negro History was published. The quarterly journal highlighted not only issues pertaining to blacks in America, but people of African descent the world over. Also in 1915 he published his first book The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.

In 1919 Carter was offered a position as Dean in the School of Liberal Arts and Head of the Graduate Program in History at Howard University in Washington,DC. This was a tremendously huge appointment for him because with this new job, he could provide the much needed institutional edge to his Journal of Negro History and his other works towards African-American History. He left his teaching job at M Street High School to take up this appointment. In the History Department at Howard he initiated a new program of study that offered a Master of Arts Degree in the History and Culture of the Negro.

In 1920 a public disagreement between Woodson and Howard University President cost him his job. The problem arose from a government request that a certain pro-Soviet Union book be removed from the University's library. This campaign was spearheaded by then prominent U.S. Senator Reed Smoot. You will remember that this was during the so-called Red Scare period when tensions between the U.S. and the "reds"(communists) was at its highest. Howard University's President understandably caved in to government pressure and ordered the books removed because the University relied heavily on federal dollars. Woodson however was not in the least bit impressed by this because he saw it as an afront to freedom of speech, a core provision in the U.S. Constitution. As a scholar, he also thought this was against academic freedom. When all was said and done, Howard's Board of Trustees put their weight behind the University President and fired Woodson. Woodson's exemplary academic credentials however quickly earned him another job, this time as Dean of the College Department at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute.

In 1921 Woodson started Associated Publishers, to help publish books on African-American history and put them on the market. That same year the Associated Publishers published its first book, The History of the Negro Church which not surprisingly was authored by Woodson himself. This must have been a lucky year for him because after years of fruitless fundraising efforts his prayers were finally answered. Woodson became the proud recipient of a $25,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, a well known New York Philanthropic organization to help him advance his work on African-American history. The big news about this however was not necessarily the money but the fact that for the first time Carter Woodson could envision The Association for the Study of Negro Life & History, The Journal, and his Associated Publishers alive for at least five years. This peace of mind would enable him to concentrate all his efforts on his life-long passion and not work elsewhere. So in 1922 Woodson resigned from his job at West Virginia Collegiate Institute to work full time on his projects. With some of the grant money he purchased a 3-storey brick house in Washington, DC to become the Headquarters for his Association, the Journal and his Publishing firm. Also in 1922 he published a textbook called The Negro in Our History, still regarded as his most popular work. His blessings in 1922 did not end there however. That same year he landed another $25,000 grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund to help him in his research work. The donors however made it clear to him that this money was to be used exclusively for research and not to pay for his organization's expenses.

Woodson's most memorable innovation came in 1926 when he launched the annual celebration of the Negro History Week. Woodson had originally hatched this idea in 1920 when he was working closely with an African-American fraternity at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. When the fraternity stopped sponsoring the event in 1925, Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History took over the event. He designated the second week of february for the celebration. February was chosen because it happened to be the birth month of both famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln who is credited with the abolition of slavery. Woodson received numerous praise for his great idea from friends and foes alike. One such foe was famous black scholar W.E.B DuBois.

It was a well known fact that DuBois and Woodson never liked each other, which of course was nothing strange in the case of Woodson because eventhough he was respected academically, he was not known to be a very social person. DuBois chose to rise above their personal differences and called the Negro History Week Woodson's "crowning achievement". He went on to say that Woodson had "literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year....the effect the American Negro has had upon the 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." Not surprisingly in 1926 Woodson became the proud recipient of the prestigious NAACP Spingarn Medal. It is however important to note here that the Negro History Week only picked up full steam in the 1950's and 60's during the Civil Rights Movement. With time the celebration extended to cover the whole month of february and not just one week. During this period the celebration became very popular, drawing in large numbers of African-Americans plus a sizeable portion of liberal whites and other races.

In 1928 he placed a huge collection of articles relating to African-American history in the Library of Congress. In 1933 he published The Miseducation of the Negro which highlighted the inequalities between black and white educational institutions. In 1936, as a tribute to the African continent he published The African Background Outlined. In 1937 with the rising popularity of the Black History Week he began publishing the Negro History Bulletin. This publication featured photos of prominent blacks and their biographies. It was meant to appeal to a larger, "normal" audience as opposed to the Journal of Negro History which mostly appealed to college educated blacks. The Bulletin in particular targeted High School African-Americans and was in fact only published when school was in session. Woodson used the Bulletin's wide circulation to raise funds for his cause. In 1939 he published African Heroes and Heroines, another tribute to the African continent. Carter G. Woodson died on April 5th 1950 at the age of 74 in his Home-Office in Washington,DC.

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