Carter G. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia on December 19, 1875, the son of former slaves, Anne Eliza (Riddle) and James Henry Woodson.

At the age of seventeen, Woodson followed his brother to Huntington, where he hoped to attend the brand new secondary school for blacks, Douglass High School. However, Woodson, forced to work as a coal miner, was able to devote only minimal time each year to his schooling.

In 1895, the twenty-year-old Woodson finally entered Douglass High School full-time.

Douglass received his diploma in 1897.

From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught at Winona.

In 1900, Woodson was selected as the principal of Douglass High School.

Woodson earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903.

From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines.

Woodson later attended the University of Chicago, where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908. He was a member of the first black professional fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and a member of Omega Psi Phi.

Woodson completed his PhD in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African American (after W. E. B. Du Bois) to earn a doctorate. His doctoral dissertation, The Disruption of Virginia, was based on research he did at the Library of Congress while teaching high school in Washington, D.C. After earning the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in public schools, as no university was willing to hire him, ultimately becoming the principal of the all-black Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C.

Woodson later joined the faculty at Howard University as a professor, and served there as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His dissertation advisor was Albert Bushnell Hart, who had also been the advisor for Du Bois, with Edward Channing and Charles Haskins also on the committee.

Woodson became affiliated with the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP, and its chairman Archibald Grimké. On January 28, 1915, Woodson wrote a letter to Grimké expressing his dissatisfaction with activities and making two proposals: -That the branch secure an office for a center to which persons may report whatever concerns the black race may have, and from which the Association may extend its operations into every part of the city; and -That a canvasser be appointed to enlist members and obtain subscriptions for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois added the proposal to divert "patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike," that is, boycott businesses. Woodson wrote that he would cooperate as one of the twenty-five effective canvassers, adding that he would pay the office rent for one month. Grimké did not welcome Woodson's ideas.

Responding to Grimké's comments about his proposals, on March 18, 1915, Woodson wrote: I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me. His difference of opinion with Grimké, who wanted a more conservative course, contributed to Woodson's ending his affiliation with the NAACP.

Along with William D. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History on September 9, 1915, in Chicago.

In January 1916, Woodson began publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History. It has never missed an issue, despite the Great Depression, loss of support from foundations, and two World Wars.

The summer of 1919 was the "Red Summer", a time of intense racial violence that saw about 1,000 people, most of whom were black, killed between May and September 1919.

By 1922, Woodson's experience of academic politics and intrigue had left him so disenchanted with university life that he vowed never to work in academia again.

Woodson studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, Woodson published the first survey of free black slaveowners in the United States in 1830.

Woodson believed that education and increasing social and professional contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism and he promoted the organized study of African-American history partly for that purpose. He would later promote the first Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in 1926, forerunner of Black History Month.

Woodson died suddenly from a heart attack in the office within his home in the Shaw, Washington, D.C. neighborhood on April 3, 1950, at the age of 74. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.

The Black United Students and Black educators at Kent State University expanded this idea to include an entire month beginning on February 1, 1970.