In 1976 president Gerald Ford kickstarted an annual event that would transform the way black people's lives and achievements were recognized by the nation — and the world. Ford officially ushered in the celebration of Black History Month, encouraging Americans to join him “in tribute to Black History Month and the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.” The message included a nod to the trailblazing efforts of a one Dr. Carter G. Woodson. But what Ford's message may not have made clear was that he might not have had a speech at all if it hadn't been for Dr. Woodson's pioneering work behind the scenes over 50 decades earlier. So who was Dr. Woodson? The answer: an extraordinary man who overcame staggering odds and changed the face of history forever.
An impossible decision
Woodson’s story starts in 1875, when he was born as one of seven children to one-time slaves Eliza and James Riddle Woodson. James relocated his family to West Virginia after discovering that a high school for black children was being established in the city of Huntingdon. Unfortunately, though, Woodson’s family were already struggling to make ends meet.
An incredible feat
The Woodsons had not a dime to spare, and both were illiterate. And so, despite having all the will in the world, sending their son to school simply wasn't possible. Home schooling him wasn't an option either. Eager to help where he could, Woodson spent his childhood mining and sharecropping to help support his family. As fate would have it, though, he was an autodidact. And this passion for learning pushed him to acquire the basics of many common school subjects all by himself by the age of 17. He didn't stop there, though.
Hungry for more
When Woodson was almost in his 20s, he defied expectations and enrolled at Douglass High School. Impressively, he graduated from what should have been a four-year program of study in a fraction of the time. Half the time, to be precise. And with a diploma under his belt, Woodson was hungry for more.
Learning himself wasn't enough, and before long Woodson head started a career in teaching. Not only that, but he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago. With success after success achieved, soon, the hallowed corridors of Harvard University came calling. And in 1912, he left the Ivy League institution with a doctoral degree. No mean feat, considering he was the second black student ever to do so after W. E. B. Du Bois. This level of achievement may have been enough for some, but it was only the beginning for Woodson.