A Tribute to Carter G. Woodson
By Dr. James L. Conyers Jr.
Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson is one of the most important but largely overlooked figures in American history. He challenged conventional wisdom, questioned authority and sought equity. As a result of Woodson’s scholarly contributions and activism, Negro History Week was established in 1926 and 50 years later became the month-long commemoration we observe today.
Woodson’s scholarship prompted the development of African American studies departments and was the precursor to the civil rights and Black power and Black arts movements.
He recognized that the preservation, recovery and writing of historical Black documents would advance the movement to focus on the African experience.
Woodson’s scholarship went beyond the boundaries of conventional historical research and writing. He sought to examine primary documents, but also addressed the influence of culture, interpreting data and sources. His pursuit of examining African culture addressed retention of history, mythology, ethos and motif.
Woodson understood and shed light on the importance of collaborating and building connections. Through the establishment of the Journal of Negro History (1916) and the Negro History Bulletin (1937), Woodson became involved in the development of a scholars group who expressed commitment to the field and function of African American history.
Woodson’s approach to the study of African American history and his analysis of the African past was critical. We must keep in mind the era in which he pursued his career. His scholarship was limited by several factors: Jim Crow laws, segregation, availability of funding opportunities and even the use of manual typewriters to prepare manuscripts and documents. Yet he published more than 100 scholarly book reviews. Cited as the first African American of direct enslaved parentage to earn a doctorate in the United States, Woodson became the second African American to be awarded a doctorate in history from Harvard University.
Woodson’s efforts were impressive and exhibited his commitment to the field and function of African American history and prioritization of undergraduate education.
Today we are afforded the many amenities of freedom, technology and information systems. Woodson’s contributions should encourage us to further prepare, recover and produce documents for the upcoming generations to advance African American history.
Through his works and scholarship he has provided a solid base to study the educational, social, political and economic conditions of African people throughout the Diaspora.
Woodson’s understanding of education encouraged the production of journals; monographs; promoted a national association of scholars; recognized economic financing of scholarship from both foundations and private gifts; and the development of documentary kits to be used for teaching at the elementary and secondary levels.
He is one of the most prolific figures in the research and writing of African American history in the 20th century. Woodson went beyond the concepts of recognizing Black History Month or seeking his personal genealogy. He was interested in the quest for African history and culture. He carried out his pursuits by completing his own formal education and preparing documents for the teaching and application of African American history.
Woodson focused on building an institutional foundation centered around the African experience. That foundation still inspires many African American studies programs to provide a corrective to old history, showing an educational balance and allowing our students to develop their own ideas and opinions about our history’s truth.
— Dr. James L. Conyers Jr. is the director of the African American studies program and a professor of African American studies at the University of Houston.
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