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Carter G. Woodson: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will lean about Carter G. Woodson. We will explore his role as a leading African-American historian, and we will highlight other key contributions he has made. We will learn why he is an important historical figure.

Black History Month

Maybe some of you have participated in special activities celebrating Black History Month, which is in February. Many schools do art projects, and have other special activities to commemorate African-American history. Museums often put on exhibits showcasing themes like the Harlem Renaissance, African-American music, slavery in the New World, etc. Black History Month has even spawned hashtags. It is big deal.

If you enjoy celebrating Black History Month, you can thank Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950). He is basically the one who started it. In 1926, he, with the support of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, launched 'Negro History Week', held the second week of February. This week was chosen because both President Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass, have birthdays during this week. And, of course, we know both men were instrumental in the 19th century civil rights struggle.

Woodson felt that African-American achievements were neglected in traditional mainstream history, and so 'Negro History Week' was his attempt to correct this and bring attention to important African-Americans. In 1976, 'Negro History Week' was officially changed to 'Black History Month'. All this to say, when you celebrate next February, remember the name: Carter G. Woodson.

Historical Context: The New Negro Movement

We're going to be exploring the life of Carter G. Woodson in this lesson, but we can't understand him fully without understanding the historical context in which he lived. During the early 20th century, a social and cultural African-American movement called the New Negro Movement took place. This term is often used synonymously with the Harlem Renaissance, although the Harlem Renaissance usually connotes the artistic aspects of the New Negro Movement. Central to the New Negro Movement was a new sense of African-American identity and pride: black Americans increasingly came to embrace their unique identity and heritage, and they found new and creative ways to express this. In the case of the Harlem Renaissance, this was expressed through music, art, poetry, literature, etc. So Carter G. Woodson lived during a time when African-Americans were increasingly willing to embrace the uniqueness of their culture. This is important to remember! He was a product of the New Negro Movement.

Biography: Who Was Carter G. Woodson?

So who exactly was Carter G. Woodson and why is he important? Woodson is known primarily as a historian. He was born in in Virginia in 1875; his parents had been former slaves. As a young boy, Woodson demonstrated a love for learning. He basically taught himself, until he entered a public school in West Virginia at the age of 20. After high school he went on to become a teacher, graduating from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903. Remember, it was relatively rare for an African-American to be an educator during this time. Woodson went on to become a leading black educator: he served as a principal, and in 1912 completed a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

A young photo of Woodson, date unknown.
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