Life and Legacy of Dr. Carter G. Woodson

By: 
Dr. Joy G. Kinard, Central District Manager of National Capital Parks-East

“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson

At a time when the contributions of African Americans were dismissed as irrelevant to the American narrative, Dr. Carter G. Woodson challenged this premise. His role in the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and the creation of what is now African American History Month led many to recognize him as the “Father of Black History.”

Now let’s take a moment to reflect on the life and legacy of this distinguished leader together.

Dr. Woodson was born on December 19, 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, the son of former slaves, James Henry and Anne Eliza Woodson. As a young man, he joined the manual labor workforce in order to help his family survive. Throughout his life – a life distinguished by unforgettable achievements – he maintained his working-class identity. He knew first-hand the experiences that African Americans faced.

In 1912, he became the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. This achievement was even more extraordinary considering he had been denied access to public education until he moved to Huntington, West Virginia, when he was 19 years old.

Recognizing the need for an accurate representation of the contributions of African Americans, Dr. Woodson and his colleagues established the ASNLH in 1915, later named the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. To ensure an outlet for the publication of works of African American scholarship, he founded Associated Publishers, Inc. in 1922. He directed the operations of both ASNLH and its publishing agency from his house in Washington, D.C.

Throughout his life, Dr. Woodson worked to develop a philosophy built on inclusion, multiculturalism, and racial harmony. His home quickly became a cultural center and a focal point of the Harlem Renaissance period, a national movement of cultural enlightenment in the African American community.

The home was often visited by elite scholars, thinkers, and world leaders including Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Arthur Alfonso Schomburg. In 1925, the struggling poet, Langston Hughes, worked for Dr. Woodson assisting him with wrapping and mailing books, answering the mail, reading proofs, and the general operation of the office.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week in February to coincide with the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

After Dr. Woodson passed away in 1950, the home continued to serve as the national headquarters of ASALH until 1971. The Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site is now one of more than 400 national parks in our National Park System. (This park is currently closed for restoration, but interpretive and education programs about this great American are available through the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site).

In 1976, Dr. Woodson’s Negro History Week was expanded to an entire month and continues to be celebrated today.

Thank you for sharing this moment of reflection with us. We invite you to join us in honoring Dr. Woodson’s legacy this month and throughout the year.

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Joy G. Kinard, Ph.D., is the Central District Manager at National Capital Parks- East, Central District Parks: Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, Carter G. Woodson Home NHS, The Capitol Hill Parks, James Creek Marina, Buzzard Point Marina, and Langston Golf Course.

Photo credits: National Park Service, Scurlock Collection at the National Museum of American History, and the West Virginia Historical Society.