George Ruble Woolfolk, African-American historian and a leading scholar at Prairie View A&M University, was born to Lucien Ben and Theodoshia Berry (Jackson) Woolfolk on February 22, 1915, in Louisville, Kentucky. Lucien Woolfolk worked in a tobacco factory to support a family of four children, of whom George was the youngest.
Woolfolk attended school in Louisville and then earned a bachelor of arts degree at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes/University of Louisville (1937), a master of arts at Ohio State University (1938), and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin (1947). At Wisconsin, he studied with the noted Civil War historian, William B. Hesseltine, and was a graduate school-contemporary of numerous outstanding young historians such as Kenneth Stampp and Frank Freidel. Woolfolk joined the faculty at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) in 1943, before completing his dissertation and receiving the doctorate in 1947. His career at Prairie View, which included service as chair of the history department and chair of the Division of Social Science, spanned five decades.
Woolfolk’s historical research focused on the economic and social facets of southern history and African-American studies. His most important books included The Cotton Regency: The Northern Merchants and Reconstruction, 1865–1880 (1958, reprinted in 1979); Negro Colleges, Texas (1962); Prairie View: A Study in Public Conscience, 1878–1946 (1962); and The Free Negro in Texas, 1800–1860: A Study in Cultural Compromise (1976). He also published articles during the 1950s that contributed to changing the historiography of slavery by emphasizing the flexibility and profitability of the institution.
Woolfolk often wrote and spoke of the challenges facing African Americans as the United States underwent its “Second Reconstruction” in race relations during the years he taught at Prairie View. In an article published in 1962 in the Texas Standard, a journal for African-American teachers, he argued that the social sciences were a key discipline in placing “our youth…on the high road to self development and social service. For our people shall need every head and heart if the American dream for us is not to become a mirage on the desert of our inadequacy and frustration.”
Woolfolk’s inspirational teaching at Prairie View gained recognition from many quarters. One signal award came in 1973 when he was named a Minnie Stephens Piper Professor, one of the highest honors that university professors in Texas can earn. In 1992 the American Historical Association gave him its Award for Scholarly Distinction. Woolfolk also became, in the words of a former student, a “community resource,” serving, for example, as a member of the Waller County Historical Commission and as vice-chairman of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Texas. His most lasting honor stands in the form of the George Ruble Woolfolk Building on the campus of Prairie View A&M University. The university also named the Woolfolk Lecture Series in his honor.
Woolfolk served on the executive council of the Texas State Historical Association from 1972 until 1981, when he was elected second vice president and thus put in line to become the first African-American president of the state’s premier historical organization. In March 1982, however, he resigned due to “personal difficulties and health.” Later, he agreed to serve the association as an advisory editor for The New Handbook of Texas, and in 1986, he was elected a Fellow, the first African American to receive the highest honor that the association can bestow on a member. Woolfolk’s scholarship also earned him listings in the Directory of American Scholars, Who’s Who in the South and Southwest, Who’s Who in America, Outstanding Educators of America, and Contemporary American Authors. He was a Democrat and a Baptist.
Soon after his arrival at Prairie View, Woolfolk met Douglass G. Perry, a teacher from Coldspring, Texas. They married on August 15, 1945, and the couple had one son, George R. Woolfolk, Jr., who lived in Dallas at the time of his death in 2005. George Ruble Woolfolk died on June 12, 1996, at Prairie View and is buried at the Coldspring Community Cemetery in San Jacinto County.