Reflections en route to the ASALH Convention

(Richmond Va. September 29 ) —
I am on an Amtrak train barreling south toward Raleigh, North Carolina for the 95th annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It is a strange time to be in Raleigh in some ways, so near Duke University, where the towering scholar John Hope Franklin made his professional home for so many years. Next to ASALH founder Carter G. Woodson and Woodson’s contemporary WEB Du Bois, it is difficult to think of another academic historian whose work did more to correct the mistaken but popular belief that slavery was the beginning and end of the story of black people. Duke has a research center that bears Franklin’s name. ASALH’s journal archives and merchandise offerings include articles by Franklin and video interviews recording both intellectual and personal reflections on his life and work.

I expect that Franklin’s ideas and research will be everywhere at this convention, but the man will not. He died in March, 2009, as the nation was adjusting itself to the reality of having a President of visibly African descent. And yet, the historical moments that marked Franklin’s entry and exit speak volumes about the nature of history as a weapon, the lessons of past wars, and the challenge now confronting those of us who believe in using knowledge to improve the human condition.


Franklin was born on January 2. 1915; it would turn out to be a

circa 1916:  Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the 28th President of the United States who led the country through World War I. Before his term in office, he was the president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

momentous year for the United States, not just the Franklin family. If there was ever a moment that attested to the power that historians can wield, this was it. The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, held a Ph.D. in history. After promising to be a civil rights advocate to get black votes during the election of 1912, Wilson segregated the federal workforce, dismissing an appeal from civil rights leader Monroe Trotter with the contention that, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit…

Quotes from the fifth volume of Wilson’s encylopedic, “History of the American People,” had been used by filmmaker DW Griffith to lend credibility to his cinematic bouquet to the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation. Wilson screened the film in the White House, proclaiming it, “History written in lightning!” Protests from the National Association of Colored People and black newsThe KKK, weakened during the Grant administration, once again became a force in national life, with deadly consequences. Wilson also ordered American troops into Haiti in 1915 in what James Weldon Johnson’s investigative reporting revealed as an “imperialistic venture” that became “a dark blot on the American escutcheon.” Wilson’s scholarly expertise helped him fit these and other anti-democratic actions into an argument that, as he said of America’s entry into World War I, his administration was making the world “safe for democracy.”

Franklin’s birth year also coincided with the death of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute (now University), the “Great Accommodator” who counseled blacks to patiently acquiesce to Jim Crow, develop their moral character and focus on vocational education and business development. In his autobiography, Up From Slavery Washington argued that following his advice would surely elicit the good will of the white power structure and result in fairer treatment for African Americans over time:

My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights.

As if to underscore the growing rejection of the accommodationist doctrine among African Americans and their allies, the premiere of Birth of a Nation that year occasioned wide-scale protests from both the NAACP and black newspapers such as Charlotta Bass’ California Eagle. We now know, of course that Washington himself was secretly engaged in some civil rights agitation of his own, by lending financial and material support to lawsuits aimed at attacking disfranchisment and segregated public accomodations, and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

From his earliest days, Franklin absorbed both the realities of racism and the belief that it had to be met with rigorous preparation of character and the determined pursuit of justice. The child of a lawyer father and a mother who was both a teacher and entrepreneur, Franklin was named for John Hope, then president of Morehouse College, and after 1929, president of Atlanta University. Hope had taught John Hope Franklin’s father, first at Roger Williams University, then Morehouse. had dared to envision an institution of higher learning where black youth were assumed to be capable of serious intellectual work. In this, he was allied with other black intellectuals such as the protean scholar-activist WEB Du Bois, the founder of Atlanta’s sociology department.

Like Hope, Du Bois believed that the truths revealed by rigorous research were the foundation on which public policy and civil rights advocacy should be based. Sometimes that research led to a starting and prescient view of world events, as in his May, 1915 essay, “African Roots of War.” While the US and its allies cast World War I as a battle to defend democracy, Du Bois cast it as a battle among Western powers to control the resources and markets of non-Western territories, especially in Africa:

“The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital, whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious at the division of the spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa. ‘We want no inch of French territory,’ said Germany to England, but Germany was ‘unable to give’ similar assurances as to France in Africa.”

This is the kind of analysis that would be hotly debated in the coming years at ASALH conventions, and in the pages of the journals that it would come to publish, the Journal of African American History, the Black History Bulletin. and more recently, the Woodson Review

A Portrait of the Scholar as a Young Man

Like Hope and Du Bois, Franklin would hew to this creed as part of the next generation of scholars. He would take Du Bois’ example so seriously that he followed the elder scholar’s educational path: undergraduate study at Fisk, followed by a Ph.D. in history at Harvard. In his 2005 autobiography, A Mirror to America, he wrote,

“[I]t was armed with the tools of scholarship that I strove to dismantle those [racially restrictive] laws, level those obstacles and disadvantages, and replace superstitions with humane dignity.”

Carter G. Woodson’s ASALH would prove invaluable to the fulfillment of Franklin’s quest. Woodson, the second African American to earn a Ph. D. at Harvard after Du Bois, founded ASALH to promote, create and disseminate accurate information about African Americans not only among scholars and policymakers, but in homes, churches and communities. I’ve written elsewhere about the role that ASALH’s encyclopedias played in helping me see possibilities for myself beyond my limited childhood circumstances. In his autobiography, Franklin captures part of what is special about the ASALH annual conference in this description of the first one he attended, in 1936:

“The remarkable thing about this meeting, although I did not know it at the time, was how schoolteachers and laypeople were as much a part of the organization as the professionals. Dr. Woodson, serving as executive director, cultivated the teachers, for he was as determined to see Negro history taught in the schools as he was devoted to scholarship in the colleges. Thus, several schoolteachers read papers on the inclusion of Negro History in their school’s curriculum as, indeed, did several college professors.

“Dr. Woodson likewise emphasized the importance of making the association racially inclusive. Virginia’s white superintendent of education, Sidney Hall, as well as W. Herman Bell of Hampdon-Sydney College, Garnett Ryland of the University or Richmond, and other white scholars were in attendance.”

Franklin went on to describe how Woodson encouraged non-historians to assume leadership positions in the organizations, citing the 1936 election of Mary McLeod Bethune to the organization’s presidency. Franklin reports that he found himself invited to breakfast with Mrs. Bethune and others on the morning of her election, which came while she was on leave from the presidency of Bethune-Cookman college in order to serve in the Roosevelt administration. while at the convention, Franklin received word that his mother was seriously ill in Oklahoma. Both the president of Virginia State College, which was hosting the event, and Woodson himself offer him travel money to get home.


Everything Franklin describes about the convention he attended in 1936 reminds me of what I’ve seen during my attendance at prior ASALH conventions during the past decade. One still sees active involvement of lay historians and K-12 teachers alongside emerging and established scholars. Non-historians still have prominent leadership roles (including yours truly – I have served on the organization’s advisory board alongside Dr. Franklin and such prominent scholars as Henry Louis Gates, director of the WEB Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Studies at Harvard.)

Most impressive to me, the ethic of care between older and younger scholars is still very much in evidence. Talk to young academics who come to ASALH, and it is not unusual to hear them express their delight that a luminary such as Nell Painter, Darlene Clark Hine, or John Bracey or Daryl Michael Scott took the time to come to their session,or offer advice. I still recall my own delight at the 2003 convention when I happened to find myself in conversation with Dr. Edna McKenzie, a historian who began her career as a pioneering journalist documenting segregation in World War II-era Pittsburgh.

I have spent some time discussing the open and nurturing atmosphere at ASALH because I think it is essential to understanding how scholars such as Franklin, and indeed, Woodson himself, persevered in fostering the academic study of African Americans in the face of persistent ignorance and hostility. Franklin went on to produce books such as From Slavery to Freedom: a history of African Americans, which has remained in print for more than 60 years, and to become a nationally-respected authority on race. While the study of African American history and life is more widely accepted than it was in the early days of ASALH, serious students of history again find their field subjected to political forces that would discard and distort the historical record in favor of ideology. The most egregious recent example is the Texas school board’s euphemistic description of slavery as the “triangular trade.” There have, however, been other examples, such as the Christian school in North Carolina that gave students a pamphlet excusing slavery.

So on to ASALH, and a gimpse of new tomorrows through the lenses of the past.

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Author’s note: This part of an unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

“‘[T]he sheriff came and took my mule and corn and furniture —

‘Furniture?’ I asked; ‘but furniture is exempt from seizure by law.

‘Well, he took it just the same,’ said the hard-faced man.'”

— WEB Du Bois in Dougherty County, Georgia

Of the Black Belt,” Souls of Black Folk, 1903.’

“It’s alright now/

alright now/

I gave it over to Jesus/

And it’s alright now.”

— sung at St. Mary’s Holiness Church in Hamlet, North Carolina, May, 2002

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Before he became a scholar, activist and would-be Bismarck of his race, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a journalist. As a teenager in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, young Willie was a correspondent for the New York Globe, Freeman and Springfield Republican; at Fisk; he edited the school newspaper. After two commercially unsuccessful attempts to create his own journal of news and opinion, his Crisis magazine would be integral to the birthing of the modern civil rights coalition as well as the Harlem artistic movement of the 1920s.  After both of his departures from the NAACP, in 1934 and 1948, he became a regular contributor to several black and later, radical news organs.

The Souls of Black Folk is suffused with the best journalistic sensibilities: vivid description, pithy characterization, abundant but carefully chosen detail, and evocative narration. This, along with its seminal influence on racial thought, explains why the faculty of New York University gave Souls and his Crisis columns on race two separate spots on its list of the 100 best works of journalism of the 20th century. (NYU) Despite this, and the growing scholarly attention to Du Bois’ writings, the consideration of his work as journalism has been slight. Most of the attention that has been accorded has gone, understandably, to study of The Crisis.

Du Bois’ reporting was part of an evidentiary brief that, if heeded, would lead to greater support for the policies he advocated for black advancement: fair wages, rents and opportunities for land ownership investment in higher education, and physical safety. In using journalism as one of his weapons, he seems to have understood what media scholar Michael Schudson meant when he declared of 20th century reporting,

“…[T]he power of the media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in its power to provide the forms in which the declarations appear. News in a newspaper … has a relationship with the ‘real world,’ not only in content, but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any conversation at all.” (Lule)

This essay will consider two journalistic essays in Souls of Black Folk. Particular attention will be given to what Du Bois saw as the proper aim of journalism, and the proper role of the black journalist. The power of Du Bois’ journalism in Souls lies in the specificity with which he placed black life in the context of the social and historical forces that shaped its essential character and defined its structures of opportunity. We get a glimpse of his nascent ability to draw out the multiplicative ways in which African Americans adapted to and agitated against their oppression. However, when viewed in terms of the evolution of racial discourse however, it may be that the most profound effect of Du Bois’ journalism was his ability to demonstrate the centrality of black labor, black culture and black action to American prosperity, identity and well-being. Ironically, we shall see that it is this example that contemporary African American journalists find themselves most challenged to follow.

In Souls, Du Bois the reporter is most evident in Chapters Seven and Eight, “Of the Black Belt” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece.” Both chapters are portraits of Dougherty County, Georgia. As works of journalism, they presage what Tom Wolfe preciously called the New Journalism of the 1960s — the blending of observation, contextual data and narrative technique. There is, however, another way in which the work has contemporary resonance: as a black journalist whose audience and markets crossed racial lines, Du Bois had to grapple with an oppressive and intricate racial ideology that constrained and discounted not only about such southern blacks as were found in Dougherty County, but also  educated northern blacks as himself.

Du Bois had to convince his readers that he was an authoritative interpreter of African American experience – a task made more difficult by the fact that his objective was to supplant what his readers thought they know about his subject. His task was complicated by several unique factors. One the one hand, he had to contend with those who would argue that Du Bois’ mixed racial background made him incapable of understanding the souls of real black folk. On the other, Du Bois faced the personal challenge of understanding people whose skin tones resembled his or his family members, but whose lives under Reconstruction and Jim Crow differed radically from his comparatively Edenic boyhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Finally, he had to contend with emerging standards both of scholarship and of journalism that discounted traditional rhetorical strategies employed by earlier black writers, such as appeals to emotion, biblical authority and first-person narratives.

If he faced unique challenges, Du Bois was also unique in the resources that he brought to the task of destroying and rebuilding the foundations of racial discourse. He could rely not only on his youthful reporting experience, expansive knowledge base and considerable literary gifts, but also the data collection that he was beginning to amass through his work for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and his direction of the Atlanta University studies. (Lewis, Biography, p. 195) Du Bois was a pioneer in the emerging field of empirical sociology, and the AU studies were part of his lifelong effort to build a comprehensive data portrait of every imaginable aspect of black life — from schooling to economic development to religion and family life. He had invented many of the fields’ methods of data collection and analysis during his first major sociological project, The Philadelphia Negro — among other things, he personally interviewed 3000 black residents of Philadelphia’s seventh ward.

According to Lewis, his principal biographer, Du Bois bragged that his knowledge came from having “lived with the colored people, joined their social life, and visited their homes.” He was particularly scornful of the “car-window sociologist,,, the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting a few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unraveling the snarl of centuries….” (Souls, p. 128) In other words, he practiced immersive reporting long before there was a name for it.

Above all, Du Bois struggled to hold to his sense of personal and racial mission. As one of a small number of African Americans who had access to an elite education, Du Bois believed fervently that the future of the race depended on the disciplined, clear-eyed leadership of liberally educated men and women. He had declared, early on, his intention to be one of those leaders. On his 25th birthday, alone in his graduate student quarters at the University of Berlin, Du Bois wrote in his journal, “These are my plans: To make a name in science, to make a name in literature, and thus to raise my race.” (Lewis, Biography, p. 135)

Du Bois was not alone in his efforts to expose the fetid underside of American industrial development. This was, after all, the era of combat between the muckraking journalists and the robber barons. Ida Wells had published her anti-lynching expose, The Red Record. Lincoln Steffens was exposing The Shame of the Cities. Ida Tarbell was publishing her voluminous analysis of Standard Oil.

In fact, Tarbell’s disclosures specifically motivated the Rockefellers to disburse millions to establish the General Education Board (GEB) and the Southern Education Board (SEB) — two foundations that, in the absence of federal involvement in public education, would dominate African American education policy at all levels for decades to come. (Lewis 265-268) Emphasizing ”scientific philanthropy,” the GEB directed most of its funding to industrial and moral education programs at schools such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The GEB was composed of some of the most powerful men in America, so their positions on black education limned the boundaries of mainstream thinking on race.