Dr Carter Godwin Woodson (December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950) was an African-American historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He also became an outstanding political leader of African Americans.
Dr Woodson's far-reaching activities also included the founding in 1920 of the Associated Publishers, the oldest African-American publishing company in the United States. This enabled publication of books concerning African-Americans that might not have been supported in the rest of the market. He founded Black History Week in 1926.
Dr Woodson also influenced the direction and subsidizing of research in African-American history. He wrote numerous articles, monographs and books. The Negro in Our History reached its eleventh edition in 1966, when it had sold more than 90,000 copies. His books include The History of the Negro Church (1922), and The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Dr Woodson did not shy away from controversial subjects, and regularly contributed to the pages of Black World to contribute to debates.
He is praised and commemorated, quite rightly, for the enormous contribution he made to the study of African American history, but from the point of view of this site, he is the very model of what can be achieved via Home schooling.
In his case it was achieved through a combination of periods of needed conventional schooling [‘reading, writing, ‘rithmetic’] coupled with long periods of self-instruction. The schools and colleges he attended gave him access to needed books, but ultimately Dr Carter Godwin Woodson taught himself and did it magnificently, his achievements are extraordinary, the more extraordinary because he and his family were poor and each period of study was paid for by very hard work on his part to earn the necessary money to pay for his study.
Life and Education
Dr Woodson was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, the son of former slaves, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. His father helped Union soldiers during the Civil War and moved his family to West Virginia when he heard that Huntington was building a high school for African-Americans.
Coming from a large, poor family, Dr Woodson could not regularly attend school, but through self-instruction, he mastered the fundamentals of common school subjects by age 17. Wanting more education, he went to Fayette County, where he obtained a job as a miner in the coal fields in order to obtain the money for further study. He was able to devote only a few months each year to his schooling.
In 1895, at the age of 20, Dr Woodson entered Douglass High School, where he received his diploma in less than two years.
From 1897 to 1900, Dr Woodson taught at Winona in Fayette County. In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. He was just 25.
He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, aged 28, by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903.
After working for a while in the Philippines, the next step for him was study at the University of Chicago, where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908. By then he was 33.
Dr Woodson completed his PhD in history at Harvard University in 1912, aged 37, where he was only the second African American (after W.E.B. Du Bois) to earn a doctorate. His doctoral dissertation,The Disruption of Virginia, was based on research he did at the Library of Congress while teaching high school in Washington, D.C.
After earning the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, where he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
He served as Academic Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922.
As we can see from this roll call of achievement, Dr Woodson never stopped his education, his whole life was a process of continual learning, paid for by very hard work and often occurring at the same time as he was working.
Dr Woodson’s achievement in context
Education today involves a period of schooling followed by university. As Sir Ken Robinson has said, a sort of factory system. Then ‘education’ stops. Few people carry on learning, they are so used to having ‘facts’ crammed into them, they are done with learning for good.
Very little that is taught is either useful to a person’s stage of life or teaches them the basics of how to live life. There is no ‘how to pay your bills’, no ‘how to drive’, no ‘how to buy or rent a house’, no ‘how to read a map and navigate’, no ‘what does the world look like’ [geography in its more meaningful sense] no ‘how to do your tax returns’, no ‘how to communicate in other languages if you go abroad’, or ‘how to cook and buy healthy food’.
And nothing on how to find out about things, weigh up the validity of what you have found, use judgement to sift information and observation to see for yourself.
So no learning how to learn and critically assess and re-examine the validity, on a constant basis, of what you have learnt.
Pupils sit, bored to tears listening to history, science, maths or ‘subjects’ that have no meaning for them. And they are expected to pass exams – an invention that exists nowhere else outside school. Employers don't set exams, they expect us to perform the whole time.
Dr Carter Godwin Woodson was lucky enough not to be part of the factory system, and he actually thrived without it. He learnt from life, from observation, from experience and by having access every now and then to the libraries of universities and schools. These days no doubt he would have been using the Internet and buying second hand books from Amazon. He never got tired of learning because no one crushed his curiosity. And he never got tired of learning, because he paced the rate at which he learnt.
He also benefited greatly from being away from the force fed nature of the factory education system, with its emphasis on unquestioning acceptance of the information and passive listening. Nothing to him was a ‘fact’. It was a piece of information, but facts are elusive things, history is written by those who are in power and ‘win’ and it is rare for any form of history to capture the thoughts of the ‘little’ man. The Truth is rarely taught in schools.
Convinced that the role of African American history and the history of other cultures was being ignored or misrepresented among scholars, Dr Woodson saw a need for research into the neglected past of African Americans. Along with Alexander L. Jackson, Dr Woodson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 in 1915.
I remember my history books. Many of them were dreadful. They were relics of the age of empire – all guns and gung-ho as we invaded yet another peaceful country, cannons blazing, and conquered the ‘savage’. What was called 'gun-boat diplomacy'. Shameful.
As I am now pals with a number of these ‘savages’ I can vouch for the fact that we were the only savages. Many of my school history books were downright racist. My school, if I had let it, simply prolonged racism and violence. I passed the exams with flying colours, regurgitating the rubbish, and stopped studying history.
Dr Woodson believed that education and increasing social and professional contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism and he promoted the organized study of African-American history partly for that purpose.
In addition to his first book, he wrote A Century of Negro Migration, whose aim was to ‘correct’ the misinformation then being taught. It continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
After leaving Howard University, Dr Woodson devoted the rest of his life to historical research. He worked to preserve the history of African Americans and accumulated a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications. Many of these he donated to the Library of Congress. He noted that African-American contributions "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them." Race prejudice, he concluded, "is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."
Dr Woodson's legacy
Dr Woodson's determination to further the recognition of his fellow African Americans inspired countless other scholars and activists. He remained focused on his work throughout his life and ‘many see him as a man of vision and understanding’.
Dorothy Porter Wesley
Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA. He would teasingly decline my dinner invitations saying, ‘No, you are trying to marry me off. I am married to my work’.
Dr Woodson's most cherished ambition, a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana, lay incomplete at his death on April 3, 1950, at the age of 74. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
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