Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), the son of enslaved parents, was unable to attend high school until he was a few months’ shy of his twentieth birthday in 1895. He was forced to work hard labor for many years prior to enrolment at Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia, which was named after the famous abolitionist and most photographed American, Frederick Douglass. Soon after graduation in 1900, Woodson was hired as principal at the school. His teaching career had begun, and became his primary occupation until his sudden death in 1950.
For a few years, Woodson studied at the Appalachian postsecondary school, Berea College, and subsequently spent time in an educational endeavor in the Philippines. Eventually, he enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he received A.B. and A.M. degrees in 1908. While there, he became a member of the historically black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. Woodson was fond of the work of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and an arch opponent of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist, or “bootstrap,” philosophy. With Du Bois as a hero, one who was the first African American to earn a doctoral degree (in sociology) from Harvard University, Woodson pursued doctoral studies at there and earned a Ph.D. in history in 1912. Woodson remains the only individual from enslaved parentage to be awarded the terminal degree from that esteemed academic institution.
Despite his superlative academic achievement, Woodson experienced white racism in the educational profession. Because he was black, he could scarcely find work in colleges or universities. Rejected by the lily white American Historical Association, he wanted to establish a place where African Americans could learn more about their history and could conduct research to teach all generations. With the help of philanthropic organizations and likeminded intellectual associates, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in Chicago in September of 1915. The mission of this organization, which still exists today (see http://www.asalh.org), was to research, interpret, and disseminate information on black life, history, and culture to the world. The following year, he started the academic Journal of Negro History. After working as a dean at West Virginia State University in the early 1920s, Woodson eventually found an academic home at the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C.—ultimately serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
In 1926, Woodson founded Negro History Week. His primary purpose for starting this period, much forgotten in recent times, was to compensate for the lack of attention given to Africa and the African Diaspora in school curricula. He wanted blacks to learn about their heritage and to discover how vital people of African descent have been for the advancement not only of the United States, but also of the entire world.
Even if he were not the founder of the weeklong celebration during the 1920s, Woodson would still have a very important place in the annals of American history in the twentieth century. Educated at Berea College, the Sorbonne, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University, he was a prolific scholar who dedicated his life to depicting the socio-cultural conditions of black people in the United States and to demonstrating how many overcame extrinsic impediments to make notable achievements in a variety of fields.
In 1937, he inaugurated the Negro History Bulletin. His dedication to the cause of scholarship on black history inspired a host of historians of all hues to enlighten citizens on the multifarious contributions of African Americans to the lifestyle cherished in this country. Negro History Week was extended to a month-long observance in 1976, during the fiftieth anniversary of the celebration.
Woodson considered himself a radical in his day, for he was willing to risk ostracism and hatred for his belief in the humanity of all people. He felt that Christian churches and their members abdicated their responsibilities to love their neighbors. He implored local branches of the NAACP to fight more to enlist new members and to help those in need and those exploited by the structural racism pervasive in the United States. He believed it was mandatory for all people of achievement to ensure that African Americans were able to participate fully in the warp and woof of society and culture. This perspective is central to the thesis of his most famous book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933.
Today, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History offers thematic approaches on an annual basis to Black History Month. The theme for 2021 is “Black Health and Wellness.” It is well established that African Americans disproportionately suffer from the major chronic conditions that impair health and result in death. Most recently, we have seen these tragic consequences held true with the coronavirus pandemic. Programs during the month of February should highlight these realities and ways to improve the quality of health indices that affect African Americans. Moreover, the celebration of African American accomplishments and achievements, while honored in the month of February, should be a year-round, daily preoccupation until the injustices and oppression of people of African descent find the dignity and worth to which they are entitled as citizens of this country and as children of God!