Week II — Carter G. Woodson: An Extraordinary Man Shaped by Ordinary People

by: By Zenitha Prince Senior AFRO Correspondent
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Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson was in many ways a self-made man, a singular man whose greatness grew out of the ordinary. As such, there are but a few names – at least those recorded in the annals of formal history – one can point to as being the father of Black history’s heroes and sheroes.

“There is no record of him lionizing people [and] it’s not clear that he is patterning himself after anyone,” said Daryl Michael Scott, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Woodson’s brainchild.

“For Woodson, history would never be about presidents and leading great men but [about] the efforts of ordinary people to change the world,” Scott added.

And so, as Woodson chronicled himself, the people who shaped his path were really the everyday Joes and Janes who shared his life of poverty, hard work and survival despite the odds.

Woodson 2-6-Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington

Chief among those were his parents, James and Anne Eliza – particularly his father.

In his writings, referenced by an ASALH biography, Woodson often mentioned the guiding principles provided by his father –

a former slave, Civil War veteran and an illiterate – though intelligent – tradesman. The senior Woodson, for example, refused to hire out his children as laborers to supplement the family income, and when he had business at anyone’s house – no matter their skin color – he refused to go through their back doors, even though it meant hardship.

“What Woodson talked about all the time was the principles of dignity and self-respect that [he] was taught by his parents,” Scott said. “His parents taught him that you were not really free when you had to go to the back door of a White man’s house. It was a sense of moral uprightness, of race pride and a stubborn insistence on living independently and not currying favour from people when it undermines your dignity.”

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Railroad Workers

Outside of his parents – but also reflecting his admiration for his father who fought in the Civil War – Woodson idolized those who had fought in the war that helped dismantle American slavery.

“Woodson really thinks the Civil War veterans – that generation of African Americans who liberated themselves, who took up arms and fought – are everything,” Scott said.

One veteran Woodson respected and who influenced his life was Oliver Jones, who operated a tearoom out of his home, providing a gathering place for Black miners after work. Woodson met Jones while he was working in the coal mines of Appalachia.

“In Jones, Woodson found the embodiment of a well-educated man, the antithesis of the college-educated people Woodson [later] described as mis-educated,” according to the biography of the scholar’s early life on the ASALH website. “Jones was an illiterate who collected books and subscribed to many newspapers. Woodson said Jones learned as friends read to him, and he persuaded Woodson to read to the other illiterate miners, as he had been doing for his father. This arrangement allowed Woodson to learn much about the outside world that influenced his thinking and extended his appreciation for illiterates, whom he held in high regard the remainder of his life.”

Another Civil War veteran who may have influenced Woodson’s future scholarship was George T. Prosser, whom he met after returning home to Huntington, W. Va., after graduating from Berea College, according to {A Life in Black History: Carter G. Woodson} by Jacqueline Goggin. Prosser, who founded the first AME church in Huntington, had served in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment under Robert Gould Shaw.

According to Goggin, other early historians that Woodson is said to have venerated, include:

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William J. Simmons
    • Joseph Thomas Wilson (1836-1891) and his book about African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, The War of 1812 and the Civil War entitled {Black Phalanx.” The book was published in 1887, but not much information exists about J. T. Wilson.
    • William J. Simmons (1849-1890) was an ex-slave who eventually became president of the State University in Louisville, Ky., (now named Simmons College of Kentucky). Simmons published the book, {Men of Mark,} a book much like Woodson’s own research, which highlighted the lives of 172 prominent African-American men.
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George Washington Williams
  • George Washington Williams (1849-1891) was an American Civil War veteran, minister, politician, lawyer, journalist and historian. Woodson would find favor in his book, {A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880.}

Woodson is also said to have openly admired Booker T. Washington, the most famous Black man in America between 1895 and 1915 and one of the most influential Black educators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Washington’s insistence on a mixture of formal and industrial education as the solution to Blacks social woes may have resonated with Woodson, who spent many years as a laborer and whose education at Berea College in Kentucky reinforced the weight of vocational training. In fact, many at Berea were urged to learn a trade, which could, in turn, help them pay for college.

Washington says about industrial training in a speech quoted in the Sept. 24, 1898 edition of the Baltimore AFRO: “The value and object of industrial education has been misunderstood by many. Many have had the thought that industrial training was meant to make the Negro work, much as he worked during the days of slavery. This is far from my idea of it. If this training has any value for the Negro, as it has for the white man, it consists in teaching the Negro how rather not to work, but how to make the forces of nature – air, water, horsepower, steam and electrical power – work for him, and how to lift labor up out of toil and drudgery into that which is dignified and beautiful.”

Washington was among several correspondents who generated a large number of letters in the collection of Woodson’s documents, which are housed at the Library of Congress. Woodson assembled the papers with an eye to collecting and preserving primary sources on African-American history during his tenure as executive director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH’s precursor) and as editor of the association’s principal organ, the {Journal of Negro History.}

Persons who were featured most prominently among those papers – and, perhaps, individuals who gained Woodson’s esteem – are:Woodson 2-5-Whitefield McKinlay

    • Whitefield McKinlay: A Washington, D.C. realtor, bureaucrat and collector of the Port of Washington
    • John Edward Bruce, also known as Bruce Grit or J. E. Bruce-Grit, who was born a slave in Maryland and became a journalist, historian, writer, orator, civil rights activist and Pan-African nationalist.
    • William D. Crum: According to an article on Crum in the October 1968 edition of the {Journal of Negro History}, the Charleston, N.C., physician came to national prominence when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him collector of the Port of Charleston. According to the publication, Crum became a “cause celebre” among Black leaders who saw him as a symbol of opportunity for Blacks.
    • George Washington Carver: a former slave-turned botanist and inventor.
    • Frederick Douglass: former Maryland-born slave, famed orator and abolitionist.
    • Christian A. Fleetwood: a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army, who received the Medal of Honor for his brave actions during the American Civil War.
    • Timothy Thomas Fortune: a former slave from Florida, he became the foremost African-American journalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as owner/editor of the {New York Age}, once the nation’s leading Black newspaper. He was also a leading economist
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Col. Charles Young
  • Richard Theodore Greener: the son of a sailor and Philadelphia native was the first African-American graduate of Harvard College and later, dean of the Howard University School of Law.
  • John Roy Lynch: In January 1872, Lynch became the first African-American speaker of theMississippi House of Representatives at the age of 24. Two years later, he joined the 43rd Congress (1873–1875) as its youngest member, representing the state of Mississippi.
  • Charles Young: Young was only the third African-American to graduate from West Point when he earned his degree in 1889. In 1903 he became the first African American superintendent of a national park, overseeingSequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Parks while commanding a troop of Buffalo Soldiers in the years before the creation of the National Park Service. He was also the first African American to serve as a United States military attaché, first to Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and later to Liberia.

AFRO Archivist JaZette Marshburn contributed to this story.

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