West Virginian key to Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson

CHARLES TOWN – The man credited with starting February as Black History Month spent much of his life studying and working in West Virginia.

Carter G. Woodson, born in 1875 to former slaves in Virginia, was a young teen when his father heard about a free school for blacks being established in Huntington. The elder Woodson soon moved his large family to southern West Virginia.

But the family’s poverty made it difficult for Woodson to attend school regularly. Instead, he found work as a coal miner in Fayette County and it wasn’t until he was 20 that he could start to study at Douglass High School in Huntington. He graduated in two years and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Berea College in Kentucky.

Woodson returned West Virginia to teach at a segregated school in Fayette County and later to serve as its principal. He kept pursuing his own education, too. In 1912, he finished his master’s degree at University of Chicago and then became only the second African-American (behind W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a doctorate from Harvard.

After earning that degree, he continued teaching in the public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, where he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Woodson fretted that many weren’t aware of African-Americans’ contributions to the nation’s history, in part because scholars were ignoring or misrepresenting the work of slaves, former slaves and other black Americans.

His answer to that: the book, “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.” Later, Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and began working with teachers, offering conferences and putting together a publication called The Journal of Negro History.

After a disagreement with the president of Howard University, Woodson in 1920 returned to West Virginia to serve as dean of what today is West Virginia State University.

He devoted his later years to historical research, striving to preserve the history of African-Americans and along the way accumulating thousands of historical artifacts.

In 1926, Woodson created Negro History Week. Initially celebrated in the mid-February, close to the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the idea caught on and now Black History Month is observed throughout the month of February.

Woodson died at age 74 on April 3, 1950. He is buried about 80 miles from the Eastern Panhandle, in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Prince George’s County, Md.

Carter G. Woodson, born to former slaves in Virginia in 1875, has extensive ties to West Virginia. He’s credited with coming up with what today is Black History Month. He is buried in Brentwood, Md.

Carter G. Woodson, born to former slaves in Virginia in 1875, has
extensive ties to West Virginia. He’s credited with coming up with
what today is Black History Month. He is buried in Brentwood, Md.

Want to know more?

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Division of Tourism’s African-American Heritage Trail brochure highlights 36 sites, many of which also are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Two stations on the Underground Railroad make the list. in West Virginia: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town.

John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, where the notorious abolitionist and his men attempted to seize a federal arsenal in 1859, also is part of the heritage trail, as is Talcott’s statue of John Henry, a tribute to the “Steel Drivin’ Man.”

Other sites on the trail aren’t as well-known. Fisherman Hall in Charles Town, built in 1885 to support community development and economic empowerment of blacks, remains a community center. The World War I Memorial in Kimball in McDowell County is believed to be the first memorial dedicated to African-American veterans.

The brochure also gives takes note of schools, including Bluefield State College, established in 1895 as a black teachers’ college, and the now-closed Storer College, the first state institution of higher education for black students, in Harpers Ferry.

Anyone may request a copy of the African-American Heritage Trail brochure by calling 800-CALL-WVA.

“A Timeline of African-American History in West Virginia” and other helpful information may be found online at wvculture.org/history/timeline.html.

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Some W.Va. leaders to celebrate this Black History Month:

  • Educator Booker T. Washington was the first African-American to be honored on a United States postal stamp.
  • Born in the Piedmont area of Virginia in 1856 to an enslaved woman and a white father, he and his family relocated to West Virginia after emancipation.
  • He worked in salt furnaces and coal mines before heading to Hampton Roads, Va., where he worked his way through what today is Hampton University.
  • In 1876, Washington returned to live the Mountain State, settling in Malden outside of Charleston, where he taught Sunday school at African Zion Baptist Church.
  • Washington in 1881 became the first leader of the newly founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He would become the most widely regarded African-American leader until his death in 1915.
  • Grammy-winning singer Bill Withers, born in 1938 in Slab Fort in Raleigh County, has recorded hits such as “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just the Two of Us.”
  • Actor-comedian Steve Harvey, host of TV’s “Family Feud,” was born in Welch in McDowell County in 1957. Raised in Cleveland, he studied at West Virginia University and worked as a boxer, a salesman, a carpet cleaner and a mailman before finding success as a performer. 
  • John Robert “J. R.” Clifford, born in 1848 in present-day Grant County, is known as West Virginia’s first African-American attorney.

He served in the Civil War, graduated from Storer College and then became a teacher and principal of the Sumner School in Martinsburg.0227BlackHistory-d

He later founded the state’s first African-American newspaper, the Pioneer Press, helped to organize the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry and argued a landmark school segregation case, Carrie Williams vs. Board of Education.

The 1898 case began when the Tucker County school board tried to save money by cutting the school year for African-American students to just five months. Instead, Williams, a black teacher, taught for the entire eight-month term and then sued the board for three months’ pay.

Clifford successfully argued that African-American schools should get the same funding and the same benefits as white schools – a victory that marked the first time in the United States that a court determined discrimination on the basis of color to be illegal.

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