The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association: A
Editorial Board: Editor: George H. Conklin, North Carolina Central University Board: Richard Dixon, UNC-Wilmington Chien Ju Huang, North Carolina Central University Ken Land, Duke University Miles Simpson, North Carolina Central University Ron Wimberley, N.C. State University Robert Wortham, North Carolina Central University
Volume 3, Number 1
W. E. B. DU BOIS AND THE ATLANTA SOCIOLOGICAL LABORATORY
As the nineteenth century drew to a
close, the United States was undergoing vast changes that included the
transition from rural to urban society and the incorporation of formerly
enslaved Blacks into the population of free women and men in this nation.
These changes garnered the attention of Americans including Atlanta University
graduates who, upon leaving the all-Black institution of higher learning
established in 1867, settled in cities and towns throughout the country.
By the late 1800’s, Atlanta University had produced a distinguished cadre
of alumni dating back to its first class of college graduates in 1876.
Composed of six students, ‘The Class,’ as they would later be referred
to by the Atlanta University community, were highly successful. Two
members of ‘The Class’ became university presidents, one a university dean,
one a university professor, one a mail agent, and the profession of the
sixth is unknown. It is from correspondence with Atlanta University
graduates, such as members of ‘The Class,’ that school officials garnered
first hand accounts of the immense social changes taking place in the United
States, particularly in the South, and its affect on Black Americans.
Correspondence between school alumni and administrators ultimately facilitated
the development of Atlanta University’s research program into the social,
economic, and physical condition of Blacks in America. Horace
Bumstead, second president of Atlanta University (1888-1907), discussing
the role that school alumni played in establishing the Atlanta University
Conference on the Negro Problem, said:
From these [graduates] information [came] to the faculty and trustees of the University from time to time that led them to believe there exist[ed] a great need for a systematic and thorough investigation into the conditions of living among the Negro population of cities. (Chase 1896:5)
The first and second Atlanta University Conference on the Negro Problem, held in 1896 and 1897 respectively, were directed by George G. Bradford. Despite co-founding the Atlanta University Studies and directing the first two investigations, Bradford’s contributions to this groundbreaking enterprise have, to date, not been fully explored. Jonathan Grossman (1974) offers an explanation for Bradford’s invisibility when he proposes, “Sometimes relatively unknown individuals flit across the historical scene, make important contributions, then disappear. Such a person is George G. Bradford, trailblazer for both the Atlanta University and Department of Labor studies” (18). This proposal becomes even more feasible when one considers that Bradford’s successor was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. It is Du Bois who is often, and erroneously, credited with founding the research program that came to be known as the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. Although it is true that Du Bois elevated the scientific rigor and, resultantly, the sociological significance of the yearly studies, George G. Bradford rightfully deserves recognition for providing leadership and vision for the early studies.
Bradford’s plan for the Atlanta University Studies was to initiate investigations and conferences:
Comparable to what Hampton and Tuskegee were doing for rural districts in agriculture and industry. At the Hampton and Tuskegee conferences, there came together annually and in increasing numbers, workers, experts, and observers to encourage by speeches and interchange of experience the Negro farmers and laborers of adjoining areas. . . Mr. Bradford’s idea was to establish at Atlanta a similar conference, devoted especially to problems of city Negroes. (Du Bois 1968:213-214)The inaugural Atlanta University Conference on the Negro Problem focused on mortality among Blacks in cities. To help him successfully carry out this study, “Bradford invited the Department of Labor,” according to Grossman (1974), “to cooperate with him and tabulate and publish the results. These statistics became the basis of the first of a pioneer series begun in 1897 by the Department of Labor dealing with the social and economic conditions of blacks” (18). The early Atlanta University Studies, while pioneering in their singular research focus on Black Americans, were not considered scientifically, or sociologically, significant by Du Bois.
Du Bois believed the major flaw of the early Atlanta University Studies was Bradford’s attempt to replicate the Hampton and Tuskegee models. He believed the Hampton and Tuskegee conferences were merely “meetings of inspiration, directed toward specific efforts at social reform and aimed at propaganda for social uplift along certain preconceived lines” (Du Bois 1968:214). This focus, according to the Philadelphia Negro author, excluded a reliable method of scientific inquiry. Du Bois, upon assuming leadership of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, was determined to implement at Atlanta University what he was unable to convince administrators at predominately white institutions to endeavor - a quality program of objective and scientific inquiry into the social, economic, and physical condition of Black Americans. Although at least one scholar suggests otherwise (Elliott Rudwick 1957), Du Bois, over forty years after first commandeering the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, refutes any suggestion that he, similar to Bradford, desired the construction of a research program designed to promote a subjective, social reform agenda. To this issue, Du Bois (1968) said:
“This program at Atlanta, I sought to swing as if on a pivot to one of scientific investigation into social conditions, primarily for scientific ends: I put no special emphasis on specific reform effort, but increasing and widening emphasis on the collection of a basic body of fact concerning the social condition of American Negroes, endeavoring to reduce that condition to exact measurement whenever or wherever occasion permitted. As time passed, it happened that many uplift efforts were in fact based on our studies” (p. 46).The second major failing of the early Atlanta University Studies was George G. Bradford’s lack of social science research training and knowledge concerning race issues. Although Bradford is a noteworthy figure in the history of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, one must be mindful that he was “a young Boston businessman and a Harvard graduate in finance (class of 1886) who made the study of life among blacks in America his leisure time activity” (Grossman 1974:18). Such a pedigree, though laudable, was not sufficient for the grandiose undertaking initiated at Atlanta University. Du Bois surmised that Bradford’s research efforts, “as a scientific accomplishment. . . [were] not important” ( 1965:797) not only because of his imitation of the Hampton and Tuskegee models, but also because of his lack of academic training. Given these limitations, and the fact that Bradford “could not run a business in Boston and direct studies in Atlanta at the same time” (Grossman 1974:19), Atlanta University president Horace Bumstead sought a more qualified scholar to lead the research program at Atlanta University.
In a 1918 letter expressing his regret for not being able to attend a dinner given by the NAACP in honor of W. E. B. Du Bois, President Bumstead enthusiastically expresses to James Weldon Johnson “the keen satisfaction I take in having been the one chiefly responsible, perhaps, for bringing Doctor Du Bois to Atlanta University” (Du Bois 1980:1). Although the early studies were efficiently led by Bradford, according to Bumstead, “We wanted a professor of sociology with special reference to investigating conditions concerning the Negro; I said that Doctor Du Bois was the one man, white or black, far and away best fitted for the position” (1). In his pursuit of Du Bois, President Bumstead faced an unexpected and quite interesting obstacle. Some university officials raised questions concerning Du Bois’ candidacy, not because of his qualifications, but on the grounds that his undergraduate degree was not from Atlanta University. “If you are going to give the position to a Negro,” Bumstead recalled in conversations with school officials concerning the hire, “why not [give it] to a graduate of Atlanta [University] rather than Fisk [University]” (2). “Because,” replied Bumstead, “we want the best man, regardless of where he was graduated” (2). Bumstead ardently believed Du Bois to be the best person for the job regardless of race and university affiliation since:
[I] knew of [Du Bois’] long preparation at Fisk, Harvard, and in Germany, and I had read the unstinted praise which the New York Nation had given to his first publication, “The Suppression of the Slave Trade,” and I knew of the confidence which Provost Harrison of the University of Pennsylvania had in him when he engaged him to a year or more in making a scientific study of the Philadelphia Negro. (Du Bois 1980:2)Concluding his 1918 letter, and, seemingly, reveling in his triumph over some dissenting Atlanta University officials, President Bumstead boasted:
In spite of objections and misgivings, Doctor Du Bois came to Atlanta University, and we held him there for thirteen years notwithstanding several offers to go elsewhere and get double the salary that we could afford to pay him. His work became a memorable part of the Institution. (2)Upon assuming leadership of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, Du Bois “did not pause to consider how far [his] developed plans agreed or disagreed with the ideas of the already launched project. . . since only one conference had been held and a second planned” (Du Bois 1968:213). He, instead, forged ahead with a research program that starkly departed from Bradford’s plan and resulted in the establishment of the first American school of sociology.
Earl Wright II (2002a), using Martin
Bulmer’s model of a school, highlights the nine prerequisites of a school
and concludes that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory (1896-1924) comprised
the first American school of sociology nearly twenty years before Robert
Park and Ernest Burgess’ Chicago School of Sociology (1915-1930).
Bulmer defines a school as “a group of contemporaries sharing a certain
style, technique or set of symbolic expressions, and having at some point
or other in time or space a high degree of interaction” (Bulmer 1985: 61).
Admittedly, myriad notions of what constitute a school are found in the
literature. Bulmer’s model was selected because it was the most extensive
model in the literature and because it ultimately, and circuitously, suggests
that the Chicago School was the first American school of sociology.
Bulmer’s nine prerequisites for a school and an abbreviated application
of his model to the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory are offered below.
A major resolution emanating from the 1901 study called for an increase in state and national aid for Black high schools. Data collected for this study reveal that state monies allotted for the maintenance and running of Black schools were less than that of comparable White schools. For example, in 1896 the state of Delaware expended $1.66 per capita for White students and $0.81 for its Black students. Additionally, it was discovered that Black Americans were responsible for bearing the brunt of the financial support of their schools. States such as Delaware, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana all reported that the cost of running their Negro schools was totally supported by the contributions of Black Americans. Additionally, disparity in teacher pay between Blacks and Whites fueled Du Bois’ call for increased state and national support of Black schools. For example, in 1898 Maryland paid their White teachers $8.76 while Black teachers received $4.07.
When Du Bois revisited the subject
of high school education among Black Americans ten years later he discovered
that not much had changed. The 1911 study revealed that, although
Houston County in Georgia educated 3,165 Black students and 1,044 White
students, the amount of funding provided to each group was $4,509 and $10,678
respectively. This study also revealed the continuation of a pay
gap between Black and White teachers. In North Carolina, for example,
“The colored teachers were paid $224,800 in 1907 and $221,800 in 1908;
during the same time the amount paid to White teachers . . . increased
by $50,000” (Du Bois & Dill 1911:117). Another revelation was
that many Black schools were poorly supervised by local school superintendents.
A representative example of the neglect of Black schools is noted by Mr.
W. K. Tate, state supervisor of elementary rural schools of South Carolina.
Mr. Tate said:
It has been my observation that the Negro schools of South Carolina are for the most part without supervision of any kind. Frequently the county superintendent does not know where they are located and sometimes the district board can not tell where the Negro school is taught. (P. 103)This abbreviated listing of research findings by the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory suggests that, as intimated by Du Bois earlier, although the aim of this school was not to engage in research for the direct purpose of promoting social reform, often the data uncovered concerning the social, economic, and physical condition of Blacks in America could be utilized by socials reformers to lend support for their respective causes.
Clearly, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, under the guidance and leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, made substantial contributions to American sociology – many of which have yet to be unearthed as this area of inquiry is virtually untapped. Some of the contributions include the utilization of insider researchers, acknowledged limitation of one’s research, and method triangulation. The most impressive accomplishment, however, is the fact that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, despite myriad obstacles, comprised the first American school of sociology. Despite the accomplishments cited in this, and additional, inquiries, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory remains largely marginalized within the sociological community. Perhaps, Du Bois was correct when, reflecting on academia’s marginalization of his work conducted at Atlanta University sixty years prior, he surmised.
So far as the American world of science and letters was concerned, we never “belonged”; we remained unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes, and after all, what had Negroes to do with America or science? (Du Bois 1968:228)
(1) See Wright 2002c for a more comprehensive offering on the establishment of Atlanta University and the origin of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory.
(2) See Wright 2002a for a more comprehensive application of Martin Bulmer’s model of a school to the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory.
(3) See Wright 2002b for a more comprehensive analysis
of the sociological negation/marginalization of the Atlanta Sociological
Adams, Myron W. 1930. A History of Atlanta University. Atlanta: Atlanta University Press.
Atlanta University. 1897. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Atlanta University (Incorporated 1867 – Opened 1869). Atlanta: Atlanta University Press.
Bulmer, Martin. 1985. “The Chicago School of Sociology: What Made It A School.” History of Sociology 5(2):61-77.
Chase, Thomas N. 1896. Mortality Among Negroes in Cities: The Atlanta University Publications, No. 1. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B.  1978. “The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University.” Pp. 61-69 in W. E. B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community, edited by Dan S. Green and Edwin D. Driver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
-----.  1965. “The Atlanta University Studies of Social Conditions Among Negroes: 1896-1913. The Papers of W. E. B. Du Bois, Unpublished manuscript.
-----. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International Publishers.
-----. 1980. “Correspondence of Horace Bumstead (Feb. 22, 1918).” The Papers of W. E. B. Du Bois: 1803 (1877-1963) 1965. Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1980-1981.
Grossman, Jonathan. 1974. “Black Studies in the Department of Labor, 1897-1907.” Monthly Labor Review 97(6):17-27.
Lange, Werner J. 1983. “W. E. B. Du Bois and the First Scientific Study of Afro-America.” Phylon 44:135-146.
Rudwick, Elliott. 1957. “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta University Studies on the Negro.” Journal of Negro Education 26:466-476.
Wright II, Earl. 2002a. “Using the Master’s Tools: The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory and American Sociology, 1896-1924.” Sociological Spectrum 22(1):15-40.
-----. 2002b. “Why Black People Tend To Shout!: An Earnest Attempt to Explain the Sociological Negation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory Despite Its Possible Unpleasantness. Sociological Spectrum 22(3):335-362.
-----. 2002c. “The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory 1896-1924: A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 26(3):165-174.
Yancy, Dorothy C. 1978. “William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Atlanta Years: The Human Side – Study Based Upon Oral Sources.” Journal of Negro History 63:59-67.
©Copyright 2005 by the North Carolina Sociological Association
(Corrections on 5 April 2010)