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Carter G. Woodson Founded Black History Month. His Journey Began In West Virginia

Woodson-Portrait-768x951.jpg
Marshall University
Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History month, had deep ties to West Virginia.

Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, was born in Virginia and spent most of his adult life in Washington, D.C. But Woodson spent his formative years in West Virginia.

Woodson came to West Virginia as a young man. He worked in the coal mines in the New River Gorge. He attended Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, where his lifelong dedication to education began.

At the time, West Virginia was a relatively new state. Though it was not segregated by law, African-Americans, as elsewhere in the country, lived apart from whites. They had their own churches and their own schools.

Douglass High School was one such place. Woodson later became its principal.

“It was the centerpiece of black intellectual engagement. And cultural enrichment and engagement,” said Cicero Fain, a visiting diversity scholar at Marshall University. “Carter G. Woodson was just one of many people of exceptional acumen and aptitude who graduated from there.”

Fain said Blacks during the period created such places out of necessity.

“It’s clear that Black people – their primary goal was to establish their own institutions, their own networks that allowed them to operate in a racialized environment to move their people forward as best they could,” he said. “Because they really couldn't count on white support.”

Another such institution was the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. Woodson served as a dean at the school, which is now called West Virginia State University.

Fain said it was through his experience at Douglass and West Virginia State that Woodson interacted with other Black leaders in West Virginia and the country. And that helped form his core conviction that education was the best way for Black people to succeed.

“Within that racial uplift rubric, you follow these principles, you follow these guidelines, get an education, you will move forward,” Fain said. “Individually, and as a race.”

After earning degrees from Berea College in Kentucky and the University of Chicago, Woodson became the second African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. The first was W.E.B. DuBois. Woodson later wrote that to his dismay, his professors at Harvard showed little interest in the contributions of Black Americans beyond enslavement.

Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The group began Negro History Week in 1926 in honor of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1976, Black History Week became Black History Month.

This year’s Black History Month comes at a time when state legislatures, including West Virginia’s, are debating legislation to limit what public schools can teach about Black history and the history of racism in America.

Fain said that wouldn’t sit well with Woodson.

“His whole goal was not to demonize white America,” Fain said. “His goal was to elevate Black contributions and experiences. Black History Month is not about demonizing white people. It’s about providing an opportunity to chronicle, acknowledge and celebrate the Black experience in this country.”

Fain noted that Woodson’s most popular book, “The Miseducation of the Negro,” called out an educational system that made Black Americans’ contributions and experiences invisible. It called on Black people to learn about their own history.

“I think Carter G. Woodson would be greatly dismayed at these legislative attempts that are now taking place,” Fain said.

Energy & Environment Reporter, ctate@wvpublic.org, 202-679-8470, @tatecurtis

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