Carter G Woodson was born December 19, 1875, the son of former enslaved Africans, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. His father helped Union soldiers during the Civil War, and he moved his family to West Virginia when he heard that Huntington was building a high school for blacks. Coming from a large, poor family, Carter Woodson could not regularly attend school. Through self-instruction, Woodson mastered the fundamentals of common school subjects by age 17.
Wanting more education, Carter went to Fayette County to earn a living as a miner in the coal fields. He was able to devote only a few months each year to his schooling. In 1895, at the age of 20, Woodson entered Douglass High School, where he received his diploma in less than two years. From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught at Winona in Fayette County. In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School. He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903.
From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines. Later, he attended the University of Chicago, where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908. He was a member of the first black fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and a member of Omega Psi Phi. He completed his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African American (after W.E.B. DuBois) 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 the public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, where he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Convinced that the role of his own people in American history and in the history of other cultures was being ignored or misrepresented among scholars, Woodson realized the need for research into the neglected past of African Americans. Along with Alexander L. Jackson, Woodson in 1915 published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. His other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
Also in 1915 Woodson began the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), which ran conferences, published The Journal of Negro History, and “particularly targeted those responsible for the education of black children”.
His final professional appointment in West Virginia was as the Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922.
He studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, he published the first survey of free black slaveowners in the United States in 1930. He once wrote: “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have to worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”
After leaving Howard University because of differences with its president, 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. 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.”
In 1926, Woodson pioneered the celebration of “Negro History Week”, designated for the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The week of recognition became accepted and has been extended as the full month of February, now known as Black History Month.