Former Fairfax Superintendent W.T. Woodson and noted historian Dr. C.G. Woodson are two Virginians who both became supervisors of large school systems; however, their origins, their lives, and how they chose to support education could not be more different.
Both Woodsons were born in Virginia in the 19th century: Wilbert Tucker was born in 1893 in Crozet, VA while Carter Godwin was born in 1875 in New Canton, VA to former enslaved people. Both served as principals and school system supervisors, but Dr. Woodson was also a teacher. Notably, Dr. Woodson was the second African American to earn a PhD at Harvard University, second only to noted historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. Mr. Woodson graduated from the College of William and Mary and did some graduate work at George Washington University.
W.T. Woodson was superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) from 1929 to 1961 where he brought the system from 64 one or two-room school houses to a 20th century system of 93 consolidated schools. His commitment to Massive Resistance to school integration in the 1950s and 60s is well-known, but infrequently discussed. Lesser known is his failure to support Black student learning during his entire 32-year tenure as Superintendent–there was not even a school for Black students over 7th grade in Fairfax County until Luther Jackson High School was built in 1954. His “gradualist” approach of integrating one class of students per year was intended to delay integration.
For much of Woodson’s tenure, Black students were educated in 1- or 2-room school houses without heat or water while white students increasingly enjoyed brick buildings with multiple classrooms that had cafeterias, running water, and modern heating. Woodson underfunded and impeded the educational opportunities of Black students whose families had to fight for an education for their children. He left behind an entire community while bringing the white community into the modern era of public schools. FCPS has retained and published historic records demonstrating Woodson’s complicity in Massive Resistance, including his 1959 comments that desegregating schools is not fair and “highly improper and infringes on human rights”.
Dr. C.G. Woodson was a renown historian, the author of over 27 books and articles, journalist and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and founder of the Journal of Negro History. Notably, Dr. Woodson was not allowed to participate in the segregated halls of white historians. He was denied entrance to American Historical Association conferences, despite being a dues paying member.
Nevertheless, Dr. Woodson was a positive force who used history to look toward the future. He was a scholar, advocate, and supporter of public education for all people. He believed history belonged to all, not just the historians. He was one of the first scholars to study African history, including studying and preserving African-American history. C.G. was dismayed that Black Americans were not included in American history. He noted that African-American contributions "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them" which sadly rings true today. Thus, C.G. started Black History Week in 1926, which is the precursor to Black History Month which is celebrated in the month of February. Dr. Woodson hoped that one day Black History week would no longer be necessary “when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of Black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.”
Two Woodsons born in the 19th century dedicated their lives to education and knowledge. W.T. Woodson promoted segregation and actively limited educational opportunities for Black students while Dr. C.G. Woodson raised up Black History as American History and remains an inspiration to us all.
Nearly 100 years ago, Dr. Woodson was determined to “convince the general public to embrace the past, including the dark chapters on slavery and segregation.” Today, some supposedly modern Virginians, like Governor Youngkin, are labeling such history discussions as “divisive” and seemingly wish to outlaw the teaching of slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement even going so far as to create a “tip line” for Virginians to report violations of his Executive Order.
Since 2015, there have been movements to rename W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, VA, including an effort inspired by current students and parents. However, change has been stalled for the past year. A student journalist at the Woodson Cavalcade has noted that, “just as in the early days of integration efforts, these [name change] appeals have been met with massive resistance.”
Photo credit: W. T. Woodson https://www.fcps.edu//sites/default/files/media/inline/fcps-supt-06-wilber-tucker-woodson.jpg
Photo credit: C. G. Woodson https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/02/celebrating-black-history-months-founder/