:: By Richard Mertens
:: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution
Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950)
The coal miner who became the father of black history
In a rare bit of autobiography, the black historian Carter G. Woodson describes how, at age 17, he left the worn-out tobacco fields of his native Virginia to work in the West Virginia coal mines. There he met Oliver Jones, an illiterate but intelligent miner who opened his house to coworkers, selling them ice cream and watermelon and presiding over talk about the political and economic issues of the day. When Jones learned that Woodson had some schooling, he prevailed upon him to read newspapers and books aloud in exchange for free ice cream and fruit.
Reading to the miners, Woodson learned about the gold standard and the free coinage of silver; about tariffs and free trade; initiative and referendum; and new populist leaders like William Jennings Bryan. From the conversations of men who had experienced the Civil War and Reconstruction, he also learned about the history of his people and their “trials and battles . . . for freedom and equality.”
Almost two decades later, in 1912 Woodson, AB 1908, AM 1908, became the second black student to earn a history PhD from Harvard—W. E. B. Du Bois was the first. By 1926 the schoolteacher, scholar, and activist had founded Negro History Week, which Du Bois hailed as “the greatest single achievement” of the Harlem Renaissance era. Through it all, Woodson’s West Virginia experience stuck to him like coal dust—strengthening his determination to make known to all the “trials and battles” of blacks in America.
This fall, on the 100th anniversary of his graduation from Chicago, the University will open a South Side middle school that bears his name. Few valued education more than Woodson, and few scrambled harder to get it. His childhood education was rudimentary; on days when he wasn’t needed on the family farm in New Canton, he attended a one-room school run by his uncles. His most important lessons came from his father James—like Oliver Jones, illiterate but a powerful moral force. He taught his children, Woodson wrote, “to be polite to everybody but to insist always on recognition as human beings; and if necessary to fight to the limit for it.”
After three years as a miner, the 20-year-old Woodson enrolled in Huntington’s black high school, then headed to Kentucky’s Berea College. Out of money within a year, he returned to West Virginia—but soon was teaching miners’ children and in two years was principal of his old high school. Taking summer classes, he graduated from Berea in 1903 and then taught in the Philippines, doing Chicago coursework via mail. By fall 1907 he was back in the United States and luxuriated in two years of full-time studies, finishing his U of C degrees and enrolling at Harvard. Once again low on funds, he moved to Washington, D.C., and finished his doctorate while teaching in the local public schools.
Harvard and Chicago taught him how to be a historian. But they also showed him how historians neglected black Americans and their contributions to the nation’s past. Determined to reverse that neglect, in 1915 he headed a small, like-minded band who formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. A few months later, almost single-handedly and while teaching full time, he published the inaugural issue of the Journal of Negro History.
Woodson was not the first scholar to devote himself to black history, but he was preeminent in a generation that brought new energy and rigor to the task, challenging racial stereotypes and demonstrating that blacks in America had a rich and valuable past. He himself contributed ground-breaking work on early black education and the importance of the church in the African American experience.
Despite his scholastic success, Woodson scorned the education then available to most blacks, believing it taught only submission and self-loathing. “When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions,” he wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’; and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Woodson strove to correct such miseducation by bringing the fruits of the new black history to nearly every possible audience. He lectured, published textbooks, and wrote for newspapers and magazines. He sent out curriculum kits to help schools observe Negro History Week, which he timed to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. He hoped that studying the
achievements of their predecessors would inspire young blacks with a sense of possibility. Most knew “practically nothing” about their past, he lamented. Lacking that knowledge, “the race” was “in danger of being exterminated.”
His dedication to the cause as he saw it was absolute. After 1922, when grants from white philanthropists let him devote his full energy to the association, he spent 16 to 18 hours a day at the association’s office, writing, editing, sweeping up. When the philanthropists, weary of his fierce independence, withdrew their support, he turned to the public for help. In doing so he made black history a mass movement—building a network of black professors and teachers, schoolchildren, church groups, women’s clubs, fraternities, and black-history clubs in every major city.
Woodson was a proud man, more admired than liked. Loath to share credit or control, he was unafraid to criticize either the black elite, who he felt ignored the plight of ordinary blacks, or the white elite who financed and controlled black institutions.
But his flaws were also his strengths. Without his stubborn determination, he might never have accomplished so much. The journal he founded still publishes, now as the Journal of African American History, and The Mis-Education of the Negro remains in print. Historians continue to till the ground he broke. And each February, in schools across the country, children of every race reflect upon such exemplars of African American achievement as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and the remarkable former coal miner Carter G. Woodson.