Imagine living in a country that hates you. Not a country that ignores you or is not interested in your concerns, but a country that actively hates your very existence. The United States of America in which Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, found himself living in was just such a country. America was not concerned with Black Americans and practiced legal, institutional and societal discrimination against them in every area of their lives. If America was not concerned with the present lives of Black Americans, it certainly was not concerned with their history. Carter G. Woodson did care about the history of Black Americans, and his legacy is that today Black History Month is observed throughout all of America.
Carter G. Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875. His father was a slave who escaped during the Civil War and joined the Union Army. After the war his father became a sharecropper and was eventually able to own 20 acres. Carter attended a school for black children operated by his two uncles. Although his father was illiterate, he said that he had taught him the most valuable lessons he would ever learn in life, to be polite to everyone but at the same time to demand to be treated with respect. Most importantly, his father told him to never betray his race.
At the age of 17 Carter moved to West Virginia to work in the coal mines. It was during this time that he became interested in black history. During this time he became friends with Oliver Jones. Jones was a Civil War veteran and ran a small dining room out of his house. Carter enjoyed listening to Jones and his customers talk about their experiences during the Civil War and their former lives as slaves. Based on these experiences Carter would become a pioneer in the use of oral history. While working as a coal miner, he continued his education and finished high school at the age of 22. Over the next 15 years he would receive his B.A. degree from Berea College, his Masters from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from Harvard. It is a testament to his self discipline and inner drive that he managed to achieve these educational accomplishments while working full time as a both a teacher and as a principal. He even continued his education while working for the U.S. Government as a teacher in the Philippines from 1903 to 1907.
As his own educational accomplishments increased so did his interest in black history. In 1915, he started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) and a year later he began publishing The Journal of Negro History a scholarly magazine which is still published today, nearly a century after its founding. He was a pioneer in the publishing of articles and books on black history. In 1921, he formed Associated Publishers Press, one of the first black owned book publishing companies. He would go on to write more than a 16 books. One of his most famous books is, The Mis-Education of the Negro. This is a farsighted, thought provoking, important book that I recommend everyone read. It is still as relevant today as it when published in 1933.
In the book he argues that black children are not being educated but indoctrinated. Black children are told that they have no history independent of the white Americans. What little black history they are taught was demeaning and dehumanizing and always showed black people in a negative light. He argued that this indoctrination was actively cultivating an inferiority mindset for black people. Everything of value was done by white people while everything done by black people was portrayed as inferior and unimportant. Teaching children in this manner deprived black people of their culture and heritage. It was also an obvious attempt to dehumanize black people by making him subordinate to white people. In the book he says (and I for one agree with him completely) said:
“If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
Although he was very active politically, he was first and foremost an educator. In 1926, he started Black History Week. He continued to write, lecture and publish until his death in 1950. Sadly, at the time of his death his six-volume Encyclopedia Africana, was not yet finished. Carter Godwin Woodson was an intelligent, disciplined and driven man. Born into a country that at its worst hated his existence and at its best ignored it, his legacy is that of recognition. This was an amazing achievement by any definition.