ADVERTISEMENT

Millions of people throughout the country observe Black History Month every February. However, few of them know the origin of this celebration. It began with an African-American named Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Woodson’s lifelong goal was to record and share the history of African-Americans. He started what was called at that time “Negro History Week.” Through his research, he found out that African-Americans had a great past.

He also saw that black accomplishments were left out of American history books. Woodson believed strongly that black achievements had to be taught for greater understanding by both the black and white races in America. He chose the second week in February for Negro History Week because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced African-Americans, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson’s life story is an example of the many struggles of African-Americans in the early history of this country.

Woodson was born in New Canton, Va., on Dec. 19, 1875. His parents, James and Anne Eliza Woodson, were former slaves and had nine children. He worked in the coal mines for very low pay. He was not able to attend high school until the age of 20. Through hard work and determination, he graduated from Douglass High School in less than two years, and began teaching. He later became principal of his alma mater.

He entered Berea College in Kentucky, and received his bachelor’s degree in 1903. He traveled from 1903 to 1907, taking charge of schools in the Philippines. His travels included trips to Asia, North Africa and Europe. At the same time he continued to take college classes. Woodson also learned to speak Spanish and French. After returning to the United States, he continued his education. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1908, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912.

In 1915, Woodson started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Today it is known as the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. His purpose was to promote the study and teaching of black history. In the beginning, people made fun of him. He needed money to continue his work, but it was difficult to get support. Woodson never gave up. His goal was to create an organization of scholars and intellectuals who would study and write about the African-American past.

In 1916, he published “The Journal of Negro History” (now “The Journal of African-American History”). To help black writers being turned away by white publishing houses, he established the Associated Publishers in 1921. The great educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, advised Woodson to establish The Negro History Bulletin to educate teachers about black history. Later, he became dean of graduate studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Woodson retired from teaching in 1922 and spent the remainder of his life writing and teaching black history.

Woodson began writing a column that was published regularly in black newspapers. He noted that there was an increasing division between highly educated blacks and the masses. In 1933, he organized all of his columns into a book called “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” This book became a classic, and even today it is widely read by many. Some say it is as provocative and insightful today as it was when first published in 1933. It has become a must-read for those who reflect on the condition of African-Americans today.

Many of Woodson’s papers were submitted to the Library of Congress. He received letters from a number of prominent African-Americans of his time. Among the papers was a letter from Booker T. Washington, written a few weeks before he died in 1915, congratulating Woodson on his first published book, “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.” Washington invited Woodson to speak at Tuskegee Institute. Others who wrote to Woodson include Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Smalls and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Carter G. Woodson has been called the “Father of Black History” because through him, more than any other one man, black history became popular and remains so today.

Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the first of four parts.