For young Carter G. Woodson, West Virginia shimmered in the distance, a not-so-far-off land of opportunity. For young Carter G. Woodson, West Virginia shimmered in the distance, a not-so-far-off land of opportunity.
Of his decision to set off for this frontier as a teenager in the 1890s, the future “father of Black History Month” wrote that his home state of Virginia, “like most of the worn-out South, was passing through an age of poverty and to escape the hardships that endured in that state, younger Negroes went as workers to build railroads and open the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.” Neither did it help that, due to his father’s meager earnings as a carpenter, Woodson could only attend school when it snowed or when agricultural production was slow.
Part of a precursor wave to the Great Migration that propelled Southern Black people across the nation, Woodson (1875-1950) listened to his brother, Robert, who had relocated and glowingly reported the prospects in West Virginia. Woodson saw manna in the mines and followed his sibling to the southern part of the state.
In predominantly white Appalachia, Woodson continued his education and sharpened his interest in history. He wrote a few pieces that were remarkable in their early focus on Black people in a region that was, then and now, more diverse than contemporary stories of its white poverty and Trumpian politics imagine. Though his memories of West Virginia and research on the region make up a tiny share of his voluminous writings (which include the classic text The Mis-Education of the Negro), they are important contributions and correctives to versions of Appalachian history that define Appalachia by whiteness alone. Woodson may arguably be considered an intellectual pioneer in Appalachia studies, a field that became an academic discipline so late that, in 1966, West Virginia University librarian Robert Munn could still quip that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States.”