Learn About Black History in the New River Gorge

Portrait of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, ca. 1915
Scurlock Studio Records Archives Center
NMAH, Smithsonian Institution

Did you know that the New River Gorge has a special connection to Black History Month? In 1926, Harvard-educated historian and former New River Gorge coal miner, Dr. Carter G. Woodson had a bold idea. Woodson, often known as the “Father of Black History” launched a weeklong celebration in February 1926, which coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson’s concept became very popular and soon, parades, speeches, lectures, poetry readings and exhibits were held to honor it. In 1970, the Black United Students and Black educators at Kent State University expanded this idea to include an entire month. 

But before Woodson founded the important precursor to Black History Month, the noted historian shoveled coal in the Nuttallburg and Kaymoor mines here in the New River Gorge. His time spent in the southern West Virginia coalfields became a significant inspiration for him to begin documenting Black history and raising early awareness about how African Americans were treated. 

Before Woodson, there was very little accurate written history about the lives and experiences of African Americans. He recorded the struggles and contributions of his fellow Black coal miners with speeches, folklore, autobiographies, letters and public records. He pioneered chronicling the history of Black people, as well as how they had affected the development of social, political and economic structures of the United States, during a time when they were not seen as worthy of historical study by a majority of white scholars. 

Woodson graduated from Douglass High School in Huntington, West Virginia — one of the few Black high schools in the region — and went on to enroll in Berea College in Kentucky. He funded his college education by teaching classes for the children of African American miners in Winona. He received graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and was the second African American, after W.E.B. Du Bois, to obtain a doctorate degree from Harvard University. Woodson remains the only person whose parents were enslaved in the United States to obtain a doctorate degree. He wrote and published 19 books and numerous articles, and founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Journal of African American History. Woodson’s home in Winona, which served as headquarters for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, is now a National Historic Site.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Learn more about Carter G. Woodson and New River Gorge history on the African American Heritage Auto Tour, a driving route developed by the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Uncover the stories of many Black coal miners, railroad workers, and other community members that helped shape this region. The self-guided tour takes you to 17 historic sites across the Gorge, including notable landmarks like Camp Washington Carver (the first 4-H Camp in the country that was opened for African American youth), DuBois High School (the first high school for African Americans in Fayette County), and Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site

Visit our events calendar for more ways to celebrate Black History Month in the New River Gorge.