“My Real Life Work Was Done at Atlanta”: Aldon Morris on W. E. B. Du Bois’ Career in Atlanta

Barbara Harris Combs, Clark Atlanta University

Katherine Hankins, Georgia State University

Published: May 25, 2017

Aldon Morris, Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Northwestern University, spoke with Atlanta Studies about his recent award-winning book, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology and the scholar who inspired it – William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. The first African American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) then spent twenty-three years of his academic career teaching at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University after a 1988 merger with Clark College), where he penned the now famous words “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” After a long absence from the canon, Du Bois is now widely regarded as a pivotal scholar of race; however, in his recent book Morris makes a compelling argument for something more than that. Looking to the extensive multi-method sociological studies that Du Bois lead in places like Philadelphia, Lowndes County, Alabama, and Atlanta, Morris argues that Du Bois is in fact the founding father of modern scientific sociological inquiry in America and thusly should be at the center of the sociological canon. In the following interview, Morris discusses the Atlanta-specific context of some of Du Bois’ most pivotal work.

Given that W. E. B. Du Bois spent time in other major cities, what was significant about Atlanta that maintained his interest for decades?

The heart of the “Negro problem” was in the South. DuBois attended Fisk in Nashville for his undergraduate work, so the bottom line was that when he finished the Philadelphia Negro at the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois would have been happy to be able to go to any of the major predominantly white institution to conduct studies on African Americans. Because Du Bois was a very ambitious scholar, he needed resources that these universities provided to conduct his studies. A university like Pennsylvania, Chicago, or Yale, would have the resources—money, prestige, students and research infrastructure—that he could use to study the issues of race and black people. And so, of course, what happened at that time is that it did not matter how brilliant a black scholar was. Faculty jobs at major white universities were just unavailable to black scholars. Because of racism, Du Bois could not get a job anywhere else. And then he got a call from Horace Bumstead, the president at Atlanta University, who made him a job offer and said, “Come down here.”

Beyond the racism that prevented Du Bois from getting a job any of the white universities, there were some very attractive qualities that drew him to Atlanta.

Number one: Atlanta was a large southern city with a very significant African American population. It had various African American leaders in religion, business, and politics. So there was a very vibrant black community in Atlanta. A diverse black community existed in Atlanta from the black bourgeoisie to the black middle class to the black working class. So there was this vast array of African Americans in Atlanta, and Du Bois wanted to understand black America in all its diversity. You know, during this particular time, white scholars who studied black people largely saw them as homogeneous – a homogeneous mass – and they did not differentiate between social classes within the black community. They did not differentiate the diversity of experiences in the black community. Du Bois was the first to do so from a scholarly standpoint: to study the diversity within the black community, and he had that in Atlanta.

The second thing is Atlanta University had already begun to study African Americans. At the time, there were conferences taking place at HBCUs (at Hampton, at Tuskegee, and at other universities), but they concentrated on what Booker T. Washington wanted them to focus on and that was industrial education and black people living in the South. Booker T. Washington thought that the race problem was essentially a southern problem because the majority of black people lived in the South, so he thought why study the city? Not only that, Washington did not have great affection for northern black cities; he saw them as dens of iniquity.

And so Richard R. Wright, Sr., George Bradford (a white businessman in Boston), and other collaborators had already begun to initiate annual program in Atlanta to study African Americans. However, it was not very scientific. It had only been in operation for a couple of years when Atlanta University president Bumstead contacted Du Bois about the position – but the program did already exist. And so there was this existing framework that would allow Du Bois to come to Atlanta, to get involved, and to make it rigorous and scientific. Atlanta became important for DuBois because of Atlanta University was one of the few major black universities at the time, because it was in a city with this diverse population, and because it had already established a center for the study of African Americans. All of these things were rather ideal for Du Bois. And, in fact, he had no better offers on the table.

I’m intrigued by one quotation that you have in the book where you talk about Du Bois’ championing the causes of the man “farthest down,” but note that he didn’t mix with them. So how is he able to do this so well – to understand the experience of this diverse group of African Americans, especially those furthest down and champion their causes without associating with them?

Well, I think that quote from the book actually came from Benjamin Mays (the former president of Morehouse College). And I have somewhat of a different view.

Certainly Du Bois’ closest friends would have been members of the black elite, such as John Hope and other established scholars and various leaders, but Du Bois was a scholar who clearly understood the necessity of getting to know the man farthest down. When Du Bois went to Fisk as an undergrad (leaving Great Barrington, Massachusetts), he had never been South. See, a lot of people view Du Bois as a scholar, and they see him as being very elitist and looking down on the masses and all of that. And they think that he did not mix with the masses, but there are some facts that challenge those assertions. For example, during his first summer at Fisk University, he went into the backwoods of Tennessee, and lived among poor black people. And he taught in their little schoolhouses, visited with them, and lived with him. Thus, Du Bois came to know members of the masses, and wrote about them. So he came to look at the problem of the masses very early on – even as a student before he became a professor. And then when he moved to Atlanta, he produced studies examining the entire black population. When you explore a study like the Negroes of Farmville, Virginia, it becomes clear that Du Bois thoroughly immersed himself in that community. He lived there. He studied there. He observed those people; he did what we would call “participant observation,” as it were. Now this was also true in Philadelphia. Du Bois lived in a poor neighborhood in that city. He visited all of those homes in the Seventh Ward, and he talked to people from all different backgrounds. Well, let me make a distinction. I think it is one thing to say whether a scholar mixes with people – that may mean that those were your friends and your social circle that you hung out with. But what I am saying is that as a social scientist, Du Bois was very involved in mixing with the man farthest down to study them, to collect data on them, to talk with them, to attend their churches, and to go to their funerals and weddings, because he was interested in producing scientific analyses of African Americans at large. So one of the thing I do in The Scholar Denied is to show that this so-called “Du Bois as elitist thesis” often overlooks the fact that Du Bois mingled very closely with the man farthest down, and he also mingled with the women furthest down. They were a major source of the scientific data that he used to develop profound analyses of who black people were.

You talk about Du Bois as an institution builder. What does Du Bois do for Atlanta University? What should we be remembering him for that perhaps we are not?

Well a number of things. Number one is that Atlanta University was the institution where Du Bois spent most of his years as a professor. The only other institution he worked as a professor was Wilberforce, and he only stayed there a year. And then he spent time at the University of Pennsylvania studying the black community in the Seventh Ward. Here is one of the most renowned scholars in the world at the dawn of the twentieth century, and where was his academic home? It was Atlanta University. One of the ways universities become great is by the quality of faculty they attract and retain. So, of course, Du Bois had many options – not a job at a white university, but he had options at other black universities that he could take. In fact, Booker T. Washington offered him a job at Tuskegee.

But it wasn’t until 2013, I think, that Du Bois’ bust was installed on campus at the Atlanta University Center. It is really interesting that it took the Atlanta University Center so long to honor this world famous scholar and leader who spent his time there, who did some of his greatest works there, such as The Souls of Black Folk, and his extensive work on Atlanta and on and on and on. Clark Atlanta professor Stephanie Y. Evans and her colleagues deserve credit for addressing this monumental oversight. Indeed, such an honor is so fitting because Du Bois brought his knowledge and his prestige to a small historically black college or university (HBCU). That is one of the major contributions Du Bois rendered to his people. By the time Du Bois came to Atlanta University, he was very interested in sociology as a discipline, while sociology was in its infancy.

Sociology was new on the academic scene. Once again, he did not create the sociology department at Atlanta University: it was small, and the dean who had established it had just passed away, so Du Bois came, and spent a great deal of time developing the Sociology Department at Atlanta University.

What that means is Atlanta University, a historically black university, had one of the first sociology departments in the nation. Du Bois helped develop the curriculum, and, of course, he taught many of the students to be leaders, how to engage in research, how to collect data, how to read papers, and how to present their research at the annual Atlanta conferences. So Du Bois headed one of the first great sociology departments in America. Atlanta University has never received credit for that. Such credits have been given to the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Yale, and other elite white universities. But it is a fact that Du Bois was responsible for creating one of the first major departments of sociology at Atlanta University. And that was a major contribution to the discipline.

In addition to developing the Department of Sociology, as sociologist Earl Wright demonstrates, Du Bois developed the Atlanta sociological laboratory. He made it a major center of empirical research on the problems faced by America, and those were the problems of oppressing black people, racial inequality, and race riots. He made it a center for the study of those issues, and there was no other place in America that did that! Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized this and acknowledged the fact that Du Bois pioneered these sociological studies of African Americans at Atlanta University and their importance in guiding the development of the modern civil rights movement. And so here is an African American scholar with very few resources who established an important sociology department and a research center within that department, where he taught and educated undergrad and graduate students, and where he also attracted other important scholars such as Monroe Work, Richard Wright, Jr., George Edmund Haynes and others who came to Atlanta University to work with Du Bois.

And so, I think that, first of all, black people ought to be really very proud of their heritage. Number two, black people and especially black academics nationwide and even in other countries, ought to be very proud of what happened at Atlanta University and this scholarship produced at the turn of the twentieth century. There was all of this genius encapsulated within the African American community. And it was Du Bois who harnessed this scholarly genius under the most adverse circumstances. This was when lynching was rampant and Jim Crow was being hammered into an airtight existence. Du Bois’ scientific achievements at this moment in history were enormous. If you compare what Du Bois accomplished in Atlanta to what was happening in the study of race in all of the other major places, like Harvard, which had millions of dollars to support research, it’s even more astounding what happened at Atlanta University. It was just an important place and time in the history for social sciences in America and the world. Setting the record straight about what black people accomplished scientifically is long overdue.

I want our readers to have a fuller picture of Du Bois. You’ve talked about him as an academic, talked a little about him even as a friend and his relationships, and I want to go back to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Tell us about that moment for Du Bois and his response.

What is truly amazing about Du Bois is that he was almost always as much of an activist as he was a social scientist and sociologist. Many people are wrong when they argue that Du Bois was a scholar during his early Atlanta years, but then left scholarship behind when he moved to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. They characterize the Du Bois years from 1898 to 1910 as the time when he was just a scholar cloistered in academia, but that picture is totally wrong. Du Bois was always an activist. He believed scholarship was necessary to inform activism, to inform struggles for social justice, to inform struggles for racial equality. He didn’t merely study the African American community out of intellectual curiosity. Du Bois was very aware of the racism that his people faced and that he as an individual faced. In fact, Du Bois often stayed on the campus because of the difficulties segregation and racism presented him outside the campus. He once wrote this famous line that “in the south I rode Jim Crow.” What he is saying is that he was not a detached scholar free of all of the problems of racial inequality; he was a victim of it. So he became an activist – an activist who wanted to generate change. By the time of the Atlanta riot of 1906, Du Bois had already thrown down the gauntlet to Booker T. Washington by making the argument that black people needed political rights. They needed citizenship – full citizenship – and they needed to be educated in the liberal arts and not just in industrial education. But he didn’t just make that argument rhetorically. Along with others, he organized the Niagara movement in 1905, which was the activist organization that led to the founding of the NAACP in 1909. So Du Bois was already deeply involved in activism in the community. He made friendships with top community leaders as they attended the Atlanta conferences because Du Bois wanted to figure out how to overthrow Jim Crow collectively – how to overcome Jim Crow and the gripping inequality blacks faced as a race. So Du Bois was very much involved in these struggles.

In 1906, in fact, Du Bois was doing a major study of the black community in Lowndes County, Alabama, when he received word of the Atlanta riot taking place. He immediately boarded a train back to Atlanta during the riot to protect his family. When he returned, he had a double-barreled shotgun filled with buckshot. You see, in many ways Du Bois was opposed to violence. He was against war as a solution to the problems of humanity. But he said if any of those mobsters were to come on campus and try to hurt his family, without hesitation he would have blown their guts all over the grass. Du Bois witnessed large numbers of black people being murdered and injured in the 1906 riot. He witnessed the devastation that occurred with lynching in the South and near Atlanta. Thus, it is very important we understand that Du Bois was a personality unusually gifted to be an activist – a prodigious activist – and a profound and prolific scholar simultaneously. King said about Du Bois that it is impossible to know where the scholar ended and the activist began. Activism and scholarship were united in the soul of Du Bois, and that’s just a very rare human being that can pull off that feat. So when we talk about Du Bois, we’re talking about someone who organized and led many major social movements against racial discrimination in the first half of the twentieth century, and not just in America. Du Bois held Pan African conferences, which were diasporic organizations that addressed the question of racial inequality in a global sense. And so what we see in Du Bois was this wonderful marriage of scholarship and activism, proving that those things can occur hand in hand.

Du Bois clearly had important relationships with a range of scholars, but I wonder if you could talk more about DuBois’ relationship with Booker T. Washington?

First of all, Du Bois was open to Booker T. Washington. When Du Bois examined Washington’s plans for black liberation, he praised the fact that Washington wanted to create economic independence for black people. He lauded Washington’s efforts at Tuskegee and across the nation and the South to make black people self-sufficient, and he praised industrial education. His problem with Washington is that he argued and led in such a way that his solution was the only solution. Du Bois’ argument against Washington was that his strategy was too narrow, and black people could not afford to function in an environment where they had no political rights. They could not afford to participate in a society where they had no social rights and where they gave up their human dignity and became subservient to whites. And so this is where he departed from Washington: by making the argument that all of these other methods, such as liberal arts education and political agitation for the franchise, had to happen. The reason that the rivalry between the two was so intense is that Booker T. Washington did not tolerate rivals.

The Crisis, “Booker T. Washington.” December 1915, Vol. 11, No. 2.

Booker T. Washington was very serious about being the leader of African-Americans, and he did not hesitate to undermine anyone who threatened him. So obviously, Du Bois threatened Washington’s power as the one and only African American leader. But there was more. White scholars, and white leaders, elevated Washington to the level of a scholar. Washington was not a scholar. So that was another problem, because Washington used political power and Machiavellian tactics to maintain his leadership. A man of scholarship, Du Bois fought to liberate black people based on empirical data, based on studies, based upon his writings, and based on his genius as a wordsmith. So in many ways Du Bois was forced into having to defend his scholarship against attacks by Washington that were not based on scholarship but raw power. I think when we look back on that period we can see that Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois both had complex personalities. And neither needs to be caricatured. But Du Bois was the one who provided the most stringent critique of Washington’s goals as the leader of black America and provided alternative ways to pursue liberation. But again, if you read Du Bois closely, you can see that he possessed a great deal of admiration for many aspects of Washington’s leadership.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Du Bois’ relationship with Booker T. Washington, read Du Bois’ obituary for Washington. In it, he says that Washington came with these great gifts, and we owe him gratitude for that. But he also pointed out that Washington’s leadership caused a lot of setbacks, and he was responsible for those as well.

Now the thing about Du Bois’s openness to others’ ideas is that he was first and foremost a scholar. And being a great scholar means listening to different scholarly viewpoints. Great scholarship derives from the clash of ideas between opposing intellectual camps, and that Du Bois understood. So Du Bois wanted scholars to lay their positions on the table, so he could evaluate them and go to war with them when necessary. Du Bois did not champion narrow intellectual platforms. For example, in Black Reconstruction (1935), Du Bois examined the arguments all major white scholars at Columbia University – [William Archibald] Dunning and other Reconstruction scholars – and their points of view. Although their ideas were racist and biased, Du Bois took them seriously by reading and studying them. Because he refuted them one by one, we now know that Du Bois’ ideas and research on Reconstruction are immensely superior to those of the white scholars. Du Bois demonstrated that as scholar, we have a duty to listen to all of the facts, even the unpleasant ones, and so that is what made him a great scholar. Such scholars are broad intellectually, not narrow.

For our readers who may not know, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how Atlanta University was integrated and the price that the institution paid for that integration. For example, you mention in the book how white academics,  professors as well as some of their children, attended Atlanta University and how the legislature in Georgia responded to the integration on the campus.

Well, the thing once again when we think about black people and we think about black institutions whether HBCUs or the churches, we observe that black people have been more democratic. They are the ones who have really carried the ideals of democracy into practice. And so Du Bois, like many others, wasn’t interested in Atlanta University or other HBCUs being racially segregated. Racial apartheid was not a program that black people believed in. And so Atlanta University, as a private institution, was one of the few that had a significant number of white professors, and their children, who often attended school there. So it was like an oasis, a small garden of integration that did not exist at many other institutions. But the university relied on funds controlled by white elites. And they did not like the fact that racial integration existed in the heart of the South, and so they [the Georgia state legislature] withheld funds. The white elites were in tune with Booker T. Washington’s approach because Washington argued it wasn’t necessary for blacks and whites to be integrated, and that segregation was fine. But Atlanta University – this was not just Du Bois – believed in integration as a principle before Du Bois arrived. I think we can look back on the fact that Du Bois thrived at Atlanta University because when he arrived it already had a sociology department (in its infancy), faculty members had already begun the Atlanta studies (though in a very rudimentary fashion), and the institution already promoted a modicum of integration. I think that what we can say is that Atlanta University was very forward looking racially, even at the turn of the twentieth century.

Du Bois is standing fourth from the right on the back row. Atlanta University Faculty and Family, 1905, Atlanta University Photographs, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.

Could you speak just a little about the hardships Du Bois faced in Atlanta and if you think any of those surprised Du Bois. Certainly he had his experiences in rural places in Tennessee; he had his experiences in the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia, but I’m thinking particularly of the death of their child, and if you think there was anything about the hardships of Jim Crow life in Atlanta that may have surprised Du Bois.

Well, I think by the time he went to Atlanta, Du Bois was very aware of the nature of Jim Crow. I don’t think that overall it surprised him. But I do think he experienced the real depths of the racism and the personal toll it took on anyone who was black. So I think that because Du Bois was aware that when the very poor and unfortunate members of the black community met very bad fates, he understood that those atrocities reflected realities experienced by the collectivity. You know, the lynching of Sam Hose, right outside of Atlanta, where they put his knuckles on display – really affected Du Bois. Here they were taking the man’s knuckles and other body parts and putting them up as souvenirs on display and putting them in the windows of grocery stores. Alarmed, Du Bois wrote: “Well, how can I continue to just do these studies when black people are being lynched like this?”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “W. E. B. DuBois with his wife Nina and daughter Yolande ca. 1901.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

And then, there is the experience of Du Bois’ son dying as a toddler. In The Souls of Black Folk, chapter 11 is titled “The Passing of the First Born.” I challenge anybody to read it and come away with dry eyes. What he maintains is that his son was going to have all the advantages because his father was going to soak his mind with knowledge about the world. And so he idolized his first son, and yet the child dies as a toddler. It is reported that had there not been racial segregation and racism, that his son could have gotten medical treatment enabling him to overcome his illness. So in many ways, Du Bois experienced the worst of Jim Crow firsthand in that it killed his son. He consoled himself by proclaiming that death had enabled his infant to escape a life behind the veil of racism.

I think that Du Bois as an intellectual and activist was a very sensitive soul. He could easily be insulted, and he did not take those insults well. He wrote about it saying that he knew an insult when he heard one, and he could get mad in six different languages!

So you know, we do have to understand that Du Bois was not only a scholar of race, but he was the victim of racism in very personal and close-up ways. Throughout his life he had to fight against it. For example, he was under surveillance by the government, not issued a passport, and he was dragged in front of the McCarthy committee to testify that he was not committing treason against the United States. So he was a public intellectual before it was fashionable to be a celebrity intellectual. And, so, yes, I think Du Bois paid a steep price. I think in general we have to conclude that it’s not happenstance Du Bois decided not to die in the United States. He obtained citizenship in Ghana, in West Africa, in his early nineties. I think we have to understand that Du Bois embodied within his own being the problems associated with being black during the twentieth century.

On behalf of Atlanta Studies, we’d like to conclude by thanking you for your time and for exemplifying the tradition of the public intellectual that Du Bois is himself famous for having embodied. Thank you. 

Cover Image Attribution:

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “W. E. B. Dubois in the office of The Crisis.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8fb3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

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