In recent weeks, Black academics have started using the Twitter hashtag #BlackintheIvory, founded by Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods, to share stories about racism in academia. Many of these stories strikingly echo experiences that the founder of the first American school of sociology, W.E.B. Du Bois, had more than a century ago. A 2016 issue of the Berkeley Journal of Sociology explored what that looked like.
Today, we may know Du Bois for his analyses of the Civil War and Reconstruction, of whiteness as a social and material category. We may be aware of how he fought scientific racism. Yet, until quite recently, sociologists rarely acknowledged the foundational nature of his work in the discipline.
The sociologist Earl Wright II describes conducting a literature review for his master’s thesis in 1999. He looked at work that sociology departments generally presented as the foundations of urban sociology in the US: the Pittsburgh Survey of 1907 and studies by the Chicago School in the 1920s. Something about this bothered him. He happened to recall a book he had seen as a child in his grandparents’ home, Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. As the sociologist Marcus Hunter explains, Du Bois completed this work over two years, interviewing almost 5,000 black city residents, despite being denied an office or academic title at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wright found a full 20-volume series, the Atlanta University Study of the Negro Problems. He learned that work done by Black researchers at Atlanta University under Du Bois’s leadership introduced many foundational aspects of sociology. For instance, it was the first program in the country to institutionalize “method triangulation”—using multiple kinds of data in an analysis—as well as the use of insider researchers. As Wright notes:
Had these accomplishments been made by White sociologists at predominantly White institutions it is without question that the discipline would be continuously singing their praises, ad nauseam, to this day.
Instead, in 1910, Du Bois was essentially forced out. Hunter quotes him explaining that rich northerners who funded Atlanta University were “a little uneasy about the way in which I talked about the Negro problem and pressure began to be put upon the University to do without my services.” In particular, he wrote, these philanthropists were unhappy with his contention that Black Americans should not just be trained in the trades, but should have political representation and legal protection.
Du Bois moved to New York to work for the NAACP, editing its monthly magazine, The Crisis. Although he later returned to Atlanta University in 1933, Hunter writes, in his lifetime and afterwards, “Du Bois would be ignored, dismissed, and plagiarized by scholars of lesser talents.”
As Black scholars continue to have their work dismissed as limited, subjective, or excessively political, Hunter sharply observes:
Du Bois’ life and sociology reveal that understanding, conveying, and centering the Black experience does NOT limit our science. Rather, the intellectual and material category of ‘Black’ is a powerful tool for measuring and apprehending the actual world.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story linked to a story on Nature profiling Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods as the founders of the #Blackintheivory hashtag, but did not mention them by name.