For the past four years, school board member Minnie S. Woodson has been in quest of a family legacy. Her research has taken her back into four generations of the Woodson family she married into 35 years ago.
Her curiosity was stirred, she said, by the indomitable spirit of her father-in-law, Howard D. Woodson, a civil engineer who designed government buildings throughout the U.S. from 1907 until 1943.
In 1915, Howard Woodson came to the District of Columbia, where he fought for quality education for black children, fair housing, and various other issues. He remained a dominant civic force in the development far northeast and southeast until his death at age 85 in 1962.
In 1972, Woodson Senior High Svhool, at imposing, eight story, white concrete structure at 55th and Eads Streets NE was named in his honor.
"When they dedicated the school, I felt it would be good if children who went to it could read something about the man it was named for and his family," she said. "One of the real motivators to beginning the genealogy was to see why Howard D. Woodson was the kind of man he was, whether it was something that started with him or if it stemmed from someplace else."
Slowly unfolding in her months of research has been a family saga of black pride, patriotism, and determination. She's learned, said Woodson that the pioneer spirit did not begin with Howard Woodson but went back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Woodson.
With Thomas, however, the legacy becomes not only part of a family tree but a possible footnote in American history. Oral history checked against U.S. census records suggest that Thomas Woodson may have been the eldest son of Thomas Jeffersn and his slave concubine, Sally Hemmings, who was half sister to Jefferson's late wife.
"It's not documented," Woodson is quick to add. "I don't want to play up the Thomas Jefferson part. It's fun but it's not important and what I tried to do. It (research) was a labor of love."
"When I first married into the family this was the oral history I heard. So I said, I'm going to prove this right or wrong.
"It's fun to try to see if I can find the link or documentation." She smiles. "It did sort of make me ponder about it."
In 1973, a stranger, introducing herself as Norma Woodson McDaniel, stopped Minnie Woodson in the hallway of the Maude Aiton Elementary School and began to recite the family's oral history. She challenged Minnie Woodson to finish it, which Woodson did. This encounter with McDaniel, a member of one the remaining Wood son families to live in Berlin Cross-roads, Ohio, a settlement Thomas Woodson founded in Jackson Country 147 yeara ago, sparked Woodson to do more research on the family's history.
Family tradition states that Thomas Woodson came to Ohio by way of Greenbrier County, Va. (now West Virginia), an area 100 miles from Jefferson's Monticello home.
How Thomas acquired the surname Woodson is still speculation. However Fawn M. Brodie, biographer and author of several Jefferson books, including a history of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings - "Thomas Jefferson: An intimate History " - has a theory. Two Woodsons, Tarleton and John, were both well-known plantation ownners in Jefferson's own country of Albermarle, said Brodie. They appear in both the U.S. census records and in Jefferson's farm record books during the time Thomas Woodson was either sent from or left Monticello. It is believed that Thomas lived with one of these Woodsons and eventually took the surname.
Minnie Woodson said, she has also found evidence that Jefferson's aunt was married to a Col. John Woodson. Therefore Thomas could have adopted the name from that member of the family.
Thomas Woodson began his community at the "X-Roads" with eight other black families in 1830, she continued. By 1840 the self-sufficient farm community had grown to 23 families. Community members were skilled blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, horsemen, seamstresses, school teachers, and clergymen. The settlement continued until 1870.
During this time, Woodson enjoyed life as the wealthiest man in the "X-Roads" with assests worth $13,500. He became a distributing agent for the Palladium of Liberty, an abolitionist newspaper out of Columbus, Ohio, and attended a state convention of blacks in 1844.
Woodson was the father of 11 children. Four sons became school teachers and three sons became clergymen. Of his four daughters, Sarah Jane, the youngest, graduated from Oberlin University in 1856 with a degree in literature. She later became a poet, lecturer, author, and professor of English at Wilberforce University. Her brother Lewis was one of the first donors to give $100 to build that school.
The community's fervor for knowledge did not unnoticed by the media. In an article presented in an Cincinnatti newspaper. The Philanthropist, on June 29, 1842, the paper said, "Negroes are all that care anything about education around here."
Throughout his life, Lewis Frederick Woodson, the oldest son, continued the family's emphasis on education. He tutored black children at the Education Benevolent Society in Columbus, Ohio, and later went to Pittsburgh to teach in that city's first black school.
He also wrote against slavery for The Colored American in the late 1830s and early 1840s under the psesudonym Augustine. It was these Augustine Letters that influenced the political philosophy of Martin Delaney, a physician hailed as the father of black nationalism.
Lewis Woodson, later became a minister, and teamed up with wealthy, black businessman, John Vashon, to organize an underground railroad that aided many slaves in reaching Canada.
One of Lewis's 12 children was Granville Woodson, the father of Howard D. Woodson,
Howard Woodson was a prosperous businessman, Minnie Woodson said, "but he moved out into this underveloped area of northeast and worked all his life to make sure the black man was treated as he should be."
He was a skilled mathematician and the only black student in his class at the school which became the University of Pittsburgh.
While living in Washington, he found time to organize numerous civic associations-such as the Far Northeast-Sotheast Counseling Corp., and the Northeast Boundary Civic Association-while raising four sons alone. Howard Woodson also built the house that Minnie Woodson and her husband, John, president live in. John, Howard's youngest son, is a retired oceanographer.
"He has the same spirit as his father," she said of her husband, "but he can be caustic. Howard Woodson was very diplomatic though he could be caustic at times too."
Woodson saidher husband is still working on some of the issues his father began. Issues such as area flood control, housing and the continuing development of Northeast. He is also active in the civic organizations his father began and he has been instrumental in many school issues.
Woodson herself taught in District schools for 27 years before retiring in 1972.She has served on numerous community committees and is a school board member representing ward 7. She was recently elected to the school board seat she was appointed to when James S. Featherston Jr., resigned earlier.
Woodson have two sons. Byron, the youngest is assistant director of The Greater Philadelphia Venture Corporation, a loan agency aiding businesses and John is an ENglish professor in Rhode Island. Both of them are very much interested in the genealogy she said.
"Byron very family conscious," she said. He came down here and challenged me on this, wrote Fawn Brodie, read books and went down to Monticello."
Woodson also visited Monticello, as well as West Virginia,Berlin Crossroads, and other family sites. The information she has compiled thus far has been published in a 250-page family book that she has distributed to various family members. The accuracy of the information has also been attested to by Fawn Brodie.
Woodson said she knows of nearly 500 living Woodson family members. Most of them hope to get together for a family reunion sometime next spring. Until then she said her own interest "in puzzling things out" and her sons enthusiasm has encouraged her to continue to pursue the family history.
"They just take it for granted that their mother is supposed to be doing this."