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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 806

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This is the grave of Carter Woodson.

Born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, to illiterate ex-slaves, Woodson grew up as poor as any young Black southerner in the post-Reconstruction period. His father was a carpenter and farmer and they didn’t make ends meet. Woodson attended school only occasionally because his labor was needed for the family to eat. But like many Black families, his parents really valued education and so tried to get whatever tools their children could have to learn as possible. Woodson taught himself many subjects and he wasn’t the only one. His sister became a poet and teacher, for instance. Woodson had an older brother in West Virginia and he joined him in 1892 hoping to go to a good school there. But economics still got in the way. Woodson ended up in the coal mines, laboring away in that horrible, hard, brutal, and dangerous job.

Finally, in 1895, now 20 years old, Woodson managed to go to school. He stayed in Douglass High School, named after Frederick of course, for two years and graduated in 1897. He then took a job as a teacher for three years in Winona, West Virginia. In 1900, he came back to Douglass to become principal and remained there until 1903. When school was not in session, Woodson managed to take college classes as Berea College in Kentucky, the experimental lefty school in southern Appalachia that remains quite a unique institution today. He received his BA from Berea in 1903.

Upon graduation, Woodson took a job at a school in the Philippines. As part of the colonial experience, the U.S. opened about 600 schools and hired American teachers to work in them. Woodson was one of them. Given that the Filipinos were fairly easily racially coded close to Black by white Americans, putting Black teachers in those schools was something the colonial administration did. Woodson saw that the teaching materials and curricula did not represent how Filipinos saw themselves in any way and attempted to change it. More importantly, this experienced influenced how Woodson saw education for Black Americans, ultimately his life’s work.

Woodson returned from the Philippines in 1907 and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he completed a master’s degree in History with a focus on the War of Austrian Secession. He went onto Harvard for his Ph.D. When he received that degree in 1912, he was the second Black American to achieve that degree, behind only W.E.B. DuBois. His research interests switched to early Virginia during the program and he fell under the influence of Frederick Jackson Turner, who had to intervene to help Woodson overcome the antipathy of other Harvard professors. Woodson had strong feelings about history, believing it to have social and political obligations, not an objective gathering of facts. This put him at odds with a lot of scholars of the period who were mesmerized by the German scholarly tradition.

But of course no college would hire Woodson to teach history. He could not attend American Historical Association meetings, which were white-only. He was working in Black schools in the DC, eventually finally getting a job at Howard University. But mostly he relied on philanthropic foundations to fund his research since the historical profession wouldn’t. Woodson began publishing heavily in Black history, one of the first scholars to do so. In 1915, he published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. That was followed by A Century of Negro Migration in 1918 and The History of the Negro Church in 1927. Even more important than his scholarship was his work creating an infrastructure to study Black history and support Black scholars. He co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, which today, under a slightly different name goes by the acronym ASALH and remains the premier Black history conference in the country. The following year, he started the august Journal of Negro History, the first scholarly journal dedicated to the topic. In 2001, it became the Journal of African-American History and remains in publication today.

After Howard, Woodson continued to work in Black colleges and in 1920, became dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. However, he came to hate academic politics so strongly that he left in 1922 and determined to never work in academia again. Can’t say I blame him for that. Instead, he wanted to focus on civil rights politics. He was an active member of the NAACP and pushed the organization to do more, in particular to engage in boycotts of businesses that did not hire Black workers or which segregated Black customers. Finding the NAACP too conservative for his tastes, he went more independent and instead focused on his dream of creating a Black History Month. It would be until 1976 when Edgar Toppin led the charge to make this a real thing, but it was Woodson who laid the groundwork by creating Black History Week in 1926. He also worked with white philanthropists to fund Black history. What was interesting here though is that he was not afraid to tell off those philanthropists when they wanted to write Black history for themselves. That was for Black people, not rich whites. They could fund, but they could not write. Woodson simply believed that only Black Americans could understand Black history well enough to write about it.

Woodson later became a follower of Marcus Garvey, impressed by the self-reliance doctrine the Caribbean pushed. Woodson wrote a regular column for Garvey’s Negro World. But he, like many followers of the movement, broke with Garvey when the latter started sitting down with KKK leaders to work out racial separation as a common goal. He continued to combine his interests in both scholarship and politics through the rest of his life, including attacking the Black church as a bunch of sellouts.

Woodson’s final book was African Heroes and Heroines, published in 1939. Woodson died of a heart attack in his home in Washington in 1950. He was 74 years old. Today known as “The Father of Black History” Woodson is one of the most respected and famous people in the history of the Black Freedom Struggle and also one who is known much more in the Black community than among whites. Also related to his outsized influence on how we understand the past today, the school he initially taught at in West Virginia is near the New River Gorge National Park. Thus, the National Park Service, as part of its attempt to include Black history at every park site, has done so there with Woodson.

Carter Woodson is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks!!! I visited it on my recent trip to the South in January. Was very happy to find it! Woodson was never actually president of ASALH, even as he founded it. But if you would like this series to visit presidents of ASALH and thus leaders in the study of Black history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert E. Park is in Freeport, Illinois and Lorenzo Greene is in Jefferson City, Missouri. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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