Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Woodson, Carter G. (1875–1950)

Historian, educator, editor, and publisher.

Carter Godwin Woodson, one of the most influential African American intellectuals of the twentieth century, spent his early years in Appalachia. Born to former slaves in New Canton, Virginia, on December 19, 1875, Woodson moved to Fayette County, West Virginia, in the early 1890s. There he worked as a coal miner before beginning his formal education in 1895 at Frederick Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, a second bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1908, and a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1912, with a dissertation on the creation of the state of West Virginia. In 1915 Woodson published his first major book on African American history, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War, and helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The association published the Journal of Negro History, which Woodson edited until his death on April 3, 1950. Woodson was instrumental in establishing Negro History Week in 1926, and in 1937 he inaugurated the Negro History Bulletin as a resource for schoolchildren, teachers, and other nonspecialists.

In his landmark article "Freedom and Slavery in Appalachian America," published in the Journal of Negro History in 1916, Woodson argued that the geography and economy of the southern highlands combined with the religious and ethnic background of its populace to make the region largely antislavery. Although subsequent scholarship has challenged a number of Woodson’s claims, his essay influenced the understanding of race in Appalachia for nearly a century. See also: FREED BLACKS, POSTBELLUM; SLAVERY AND ABOLITION (GOVERNMENT).

—Steve Gowler, Berea College

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