Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”