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Tribute to the pioneer patriarch of African American history: Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950).

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 ... The large majority of his class ... must go through life denouncing white people because they are trying to run away from the Blacks and decrying the Backs because they are not white." (5)

Dr. Woodson believed that "Negro History" was simply the missing pages of world history. He also contended that a people who have lost control over the definition of their history are "likely candidates for genocide." Without an acknowledged record of one's contributions to world civilization, a race may find it basic claim to humanity threatened. (6)

Two significant contributions are revealed in Woodson's life. He institutionalized the academic study of African American history as a serious discipline by establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, the Journal of Negro History in 1916, and the Associated Publishers, Inc. in 1921. These institutions provided a publishing outlet for Black writers and a professional association to collectively support the study of Black history. (7)

Secondly, Woodson popularized African American history among the masses of Black people. He founded what was then called Negro History Week in 1926 and the Negro History Bulletin for primary and secondary Black youth in 1937. Both efforts extended the concern for Black history beyond the narrow world of the scholar. In Woodson's view, a sensitivity and concern for Black history must be manifested in churches, barbershops, beauty parlors, community meetings, and among those who frequent street corners. Finally, Carter G. Woodson published over twenty books and numerous articles. He devoted more than fifty years of his life to restoring the missing segment of the African segment to its proper role in the development of world civilization. (8)

History is not the simple recitation of dates, facts or the recalling of famous individuals. At the bottom line, history can be a tool to oppress people or a means to liberate people. It is important to understand that history is a combination of knowledge, identity, and power. History is a collection of information which should be employed to understand the present and project the future. History also creates an identity. This identity can be based upon negative images or positive images. Lerone Bennett contended,
 men respond not to the situation but to the situation
 transformed by the images they carry in their minds." Dr.
 Woodson supported the same position by stating, "If you can
 control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his
 action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not
 have to concern yourself with what he will do. If you make him
 feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to
 accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you
 can make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not
 have to order him to the back door. He will go without being
 told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand
 one." (9)


History is power because it regulates and defines human behavior. The ability to legitimize ideas, images, and create identities falls within the arena of history and the task of the historian. Thus, it is no accident that the oppressed must first find and free their history before they can free their physical bodies. An oppressed people must legitimize a mental image of power, freedom, and unity if the physical struggle is to be sustained.

This is the key to the significance of Black History Month. We must use our history as a tool of analysis and a vital reservoir of spiritual and intellectual power. Propaganda and an all-out assault upon Black minds will continue to dominate the post "9-11 era". The genuine essence of Black History Month challenges the mammoth gap between the rhetoric of American institutions and the reality of Black oppression. This observance must be a testimony to those Black pioneers who struggled to affirm the humanity of African people and a challenge to the present generation to protect and preserve Black humanity.
 A man understands history when he understands that history does
 not permit men the luxury of escaping their inheritance, when he
 understands that he is not only responsible for his own acts but
 also for the meaning those acts take on in a certain social
 context, when he understands that he is not only what he has
 done but what his parents have done, when he understands that
 history requires him to answer not only for his own life but
 also for the lives of the men and women and children who share
 his situation and destiny. (10)


(2) John Henrik Clarke, "Why Black History," Encore (February 2, 1976), 48.

(3) Lawrence D. Reddick, "Carter G. Woodson as a Scholar," Journal of Negro History, Vol. 36 (1951), 12-14; W.E.B. Du Bois, "A Portrait of Carter G. Woodson," Masses and Mainstream, Vol. 3 (Jun 1950), 19; and Jacqueline Goggin, Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 1-33.

(4) Earl E. Thorpe, Black Historians: A Critique (New York: William Morrow, 1971), 108-111.

(5) Carter G. Woodson, The Seat of Trouble," in Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1933), 1-8. This chapter is an informative discussion of Woodson's view of highly educated Blacks in the 1930s.

(6) Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro, xxxii.

(7) Thorpe, Black Historians, 108-115.

(8) Thorpe, Black Historians, 108-115.

(9) Lerone Bennett, The Challenge of Blackness (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1972), 22; and Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro, 84.

(10) Lerone Bennett, The Challenge of Blackness, 203.

Ralph L. Crowder (1)

(1) Ralph L. Crowder is an Associate Professor, Department of Ethnic Studies and Cooperative Faculty member, Department of History, University of California, Riverside.
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Author:Crowder, Ralph L.
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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