A Native Son: Father Of Black History Honored

Published 4:13 pm Thursday, December 19, 2013

BUCKINGHAM — It was a small home in New Canton, too small for the large family that lived there. The family made do though, the father worked as a carpenter, while the children missed many school days working on the farm.

Neither the children’s mother nor father, who were former slaves, could read or write.

Education seemed very scarce.

Email newsletter signup

One of their sons, who moved to West Virginia to attend high school, had to work in coal mines at a young age to keep food on the table.

That son, through much education, would later become the world-known Father of Black History, graduating from Harvard University and writing several books, documenting the historical contributions of African Americans.

The first annual day honoring this man from humble beginnings, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson Day, was celebrated last Saturday, beginning with a wreath-laying ceremony at his birth site in New Canton, continuing with an educational program celebrating his life and legacy, and ending with unity in song – the singing of Lift Every Voice And Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson.

The program was held at a school building that serves as a permanent monument to the life-long educator, the Carter G. Woodson Educational Complex on Route 20.

The event was sponsored and organized by the Buckingham African American Life and History Society.

“In Western culture, when it rains we think that’s a bad omen. But in the African American and African traditions, when it rains, that’s a good sign that your endeavors will be fruitful,” began former member of the Virginia House of Delegates Viola Baskerville, the event’s keynote speaker.

Baskerville, who also served as secretary of administration under Governor Tim Kaine, told the large audience, “It is such a tremendous honor to be here today. And as we stop to honor the life and contributions of a great native son, who enlightened the world with the knowledge and the role of our people in American history, let us stop, just for a moment, to honor the life of a man, who through his own determination and sacrifice, made history and a brighter future for his country and the world, President Nelson Mandela.”

“Anytime I come this way, it is home,” said Baskerville, whose father is from Buckingham County. “Every time I come here there is a sense that I am reconnecting to purpose, heritage, and roots. And that sense is heightened even more so today at this time and in this place.”

As Baskerville described the life and education of Woodson, she described him as “the quintessential student, scholar, teacher, educator, researcher, writer, and renaissance man of arts and letters…Dr. Woodson set the bar so effectively and responsibly educating ourselves, and our children of our heritage.”

Out of all the events set to honor him across the nation on his upcoming December birthday, no other would honor him like the one Saturday, Baskerville noted.

“Today, we here, in Dr. Woodson’s own home county, go a step further,” she said of the many places across the United States named after Woodson. “Today, on Dr. Woodson’s own home turf, in the very environment that sparked his desire to set the record straight, we move beyond the photographs and the hallways during Black History Month. We move beyond the naming of a road, to an educational complex appropriately named in his honor. At a place that will represent man’s true liberation, freedom and equality. The font of knowledge, a school.”

Ethel “Arlene” Woodson, a cousin of Woodson’s and a 1957 graduate of the former Carter G. Woodson High School, which is now part of the educational complex, told The Herald that her cousin loved to learn.

“I feel honored, because he was such an educator. And he loved to learn. And he didn’t keep it to himself. He shared what he had learned. He was just an extraordinary person, he was really a brilliant person…I remember him (my dad) telling us when Carter G. left for West Virginia, my dad had given him a little money to help him, because he was in so many different places, like West Virginia and Harvard, there in D.C. He’s spread around, he really is. It’s just an honor.”

Joyce Gooden, the society’s vice-president, explained how Woodson had a large impact on Buckingham’s heritage.

“He brought it (African American history) to the forefront…I think he impacted it because, now we recognize the history and appreciate all people’s history…I think he had a great impact on me being proud to be from Buckingham, and part of Buckingham’s heritage…”

Gooden gave much credit in organizing the event to Joe Scruggs, a former educator with the school division.

“I live in Fredericksburg, and I’m here today because my heart is here. There are other people to pick up the baton. Mr. (William) Harvey has a heart for Dr. Carter G. Woodson. To be in Buckingham, his birth place…Just giving him more recognition, we were taking care of the birth site and so, its now just a more organized (effort), and getting more people in,” she said.

Gooden, looking at old class photos from the 1960’s that are now part of the society’s exhibit, reminisced about integration in Buckingham.

“The powers that be at the Carter G. Woodson High School, that had officially integrated, they took these artifacts and threw them in the dumpster…This gentleman, Mr. (G. Frank) Harris, who was principal at the time, he actually climbed into the dumpster…Trophies and everything, all of it was thrown into the dumpster. As if our history meant nothing. It meant nothing to them.”

The exhibit, which debuted in 2005, contains an American flag that was flown over the school, newspaper articles, photos, and interviews from those who were involved in integration of the schools in Buckingham, in Virginia, and within the United States.

During the program, third, fourth, and fifth graders from Buckingham’s elementary school sang Christmas songs and other musical selections for the audience.

Charles White, the society’s president and an African American historian, shared the history of the erection of Woodson’s birth site markers.

“In 1974, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey decided they wanted to put markers of outstanding African Americans across the country. They commissioned the National Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Washington to head that up. The first marker they wanted to place was the marker for Carter G. Woodson, who was regarded by most people as the father of African American history. A man that spent his entire life studying African American history, and who wrote 15 books and edited and published 2,000 articles. And he also published two magazines, one I remember having in high school. It was called the Negro History Bulletin.”

“Growing up, African American children had very few heroes, very few, unlike today. And this little booklet was used by our teachers to point out to us that people before you, who didn’t have the opportunity that you have…You can accomplish and you can make a contribution…That kept history before us,” the former educator related.

In the mid-1970’s, the society “set out to place (a) marker at the Carter G. Woodson birth site” purchasing land with the assistance of George Frank Harris, then principal of the Carter G. Woodson High School.

“What you see is the legacy of Dr. Carter G. Woodson,” commented Basil Gooden, the emcee of the program. “He inspired people to move the ball down the field a little further, and when I was coming through we had great people, like Mr. Charles White, Mr. Frank Harris…and teachers, great teachers, and people who really made a difference in lives. Hopefully, we’ll keep the ball moving, as our speaker said, in educating the world.”

Using the words from the Christmas song Mary Did You Know as a preface, Scruggs explained, “I have to think and wonder when Anna and James Woodson looked at baby Carter G. Woodson, if they had any idea of what that child would do later in life.”

“So we come today to celebrate Dr. Carter G. Woodson, because this is his home. And the Buckingham African American Life and History Society felt that it was certainly time for Buckingham County to begin to recognize one who is recognized all over the world and very little is sometimes mentioned or said about him right here at his own home,” explained Scruggs.

After thanking many for their efforts in organizing the first of its kind event, including the division’s educators and administrators, he spoke about unity between the two former schools that now make up the educational complex.

“It’s kind of combined, brought together from the old and the new…So you can sit in the Carter G. Woodson Educational Complex, as she said, it’s more than bricks and mortar, it’s more than just lights, it’s something that we need to be proud of…”

At the end of the program, Scruggs announced the start of a financial campaign to make improvements and erect a new marker to better honor the birth site of Dr. Woodson.

“If you have not had a chance to go there to visit the site, I certainly encourage you to do so…What we would like to do, what this organization is hoping (is) that we will be able to make some significant changes on that site. Mr. White pulled on his experience as a building trades teacher and his experience on how to do some drafting and drawing, and has come up with a conceptual drawing of what we hope will come to pass as the new Carter G. Woodson birth site. One in which there will be a bust of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, there will be other landscaping around the site, and we are working towards this goal,” he explained.

The event, which drew a large crowd despite the cold rain that fell throughout the county, began appropriately with an opening prayer by the Rev. Swannie Page Thompson, a former teacher at Carter G. Woodson High School, and concluded with the crowd reading, in unison, the benediction offered by the Rev. W.J. Kerr at the dedication of the marker at Woodson’s birth site in 1975.

To make a donation towards the improvements of Woodson’s birth site markers, call Charles White at 434-969-4169, Connie Nash at 434-581-3322, or write to Buckingham African American Life and History Society, 3268 Shelton Store Road, Buckingham, Virginia 23921.