Historical Vindication: Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 3 of 6)

Du Bois’s first foray into what would become a lifetime of writing toward this goal of race vindication came in 1892 with the writing of his meticulously documented doctoral dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. In this dissertation, Du Bois did not engage in the philosophizing and mythmaking sort of historical research which had long been popular and remained so up to his time. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s five-volume work The History of England from the Accession of James II had been read by Du Bois “with relish as a child and then at Fisk,” but Du Bois found the tendencies of Macaulay and other earlier and contemporary historians to engage in metaphysics, moralizing, and mythologizing insufficient to his task.[22] Du Bois knew the strength and popularity of the ideas that he was working to repudiate and saw that need for a purely and overwhelmingly scientific argument against them—the sort of argument that could not be refuted or rejected as mere speculation or opinion.

        Such was the power and popularity of the “pseudo-science” in history, biology, and other fields of thought which insisted that blacks were inherently unequal to whites that even former ardent supporters of the uplift of African Americans were beginning to be won over by the arguments of the advocates of racial hierarchy. As Shamoon Zamir writes,

Even [Professor Albert Bushnell] Hart [of Harvard University], Du Bois’s dissertation supervisor, proud of his abolitionist heritage and exceptionally active in his support of black advance, conceded in reviewing literature purporting to demonstrate black inferiority that “if provably, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Hart finally agreed that the argument was indeed provable and that blacks were inferior to even “poor white people, immigrants or natives.”[23]

That even someone like Hart could be won over by the arguments being advanced by the scientific racists at the end of the nineteenth century is demonstrative of the formidable task that Du Bois faced as he set out.

        In Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois chose to remain firmly in the realm of the empirical. Relying heavily upon citation of primary source material for every claim put forward, Du Bois thoroughly documented the failure of those who opposed the slave trade and of the United States as a whole to put an end to the slave trade, often in spite of its own self-understandings and promises. In four appendices spanning more than a hundred pages in the original, Du Bois provided lists of dozens of sources for his conclusions drawn from laws passed at the local, state, national, and international levels.[24] In so doing, Du Bois smashed the myths of American exceptionalism and American moral superiority, exposing the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values of freedom and equality. By all accounts, Du Bois’s dissertation was an outstanding success. It became the first published volume in the Harvard Historical Series of books.[25] As Lewis points out, “critical reception of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade had made him one of the most talked-about young scholars in the country.”[26]

        Du Bois’s first academic appointment after graduation from Harvard was as Chair of the Department of Classics at Wilberforce University. There, in nearly a direct refutation of Calhoun’s infamous pronouncement on the inability of people of African descent to understand Greek syntax, Du Bois taught not only Greek but Latin, English, and German, in addition to history.[27] He requested to teach a course in sociology as well, but was turned down by the administration. Du Bois’s tenure at as a member of the Wilberforce University faculty, however, was short-lived.

        After only two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania that afforded him the opportunity to continue his scientific investigations into the lives of African Americans and their communities. This time, the product of Du Bois’s work would be his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, “the first sociological study of an African American community ever published in the United States.”[28] Du Bois’s groundbreaking work set out to study the social conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Du Bois’s sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania initially commissioned the work in the hopes that the observations of Du Bois, undoubtedly the world’s leading black scholar already at this point in his life, would confirm what white sociologists had long claimed: that the poverty, crime, and squalid conditions of emerging African American urban communities were to be attributed to innate black inferiority. Du Bois writes in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, “The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely in the slums at the lower end of the seventh ward.”[29] Du Bois’s work, however, not only refuted but entirely upended such claims.

        “Though black and committed to social justice,” writes Keith E. Byerman, Du Bois resolved to “function as a disinterested scientist in examining black life,” certain that the facts as accurately documented and reported would bear out his belief that the poor conditions of black life in Philadelphia were not the consequence of black inferiority.[30] Just as he had in his research and writing for his doctoral dissertation, Du Bois was once again as meticulous as possible in both the research for and the presentation of The Philadelphia Negro. As Zamir writes, “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include more historical assessment of the evidence in his work.”[31] Only after carefully tracing the history of the African American community of Philadelphia and explaining the various trials it had faced from the forces of racism, economic and social exclusion, the competition for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, and the setbacks caused by the migration of African American former slaves from the South. Following this historical survey, Du Bois launched into a lengthy presentation of the sociological data he gathered by personally visiting every African American household in the seventh ward as well as others elsewhere in the city. For almost a year and a half, Du Bois himself travelled from house to house in the seventh ward with a set of questions inquiring into family life, income, employment, religious affiliation, and other facts about the household and its members.[32] For his presentation of the data he collected in The Philadelphia Negro, writes Byerman, “Du Bois fills his chapters with tables and graphs to demonstrate that his study is in fact wonderfully objective.”[33] The result is an exceedingly well-researched and well-documented study that undermines the insistence of “the city authorities” who claimed “that the city’s problems stemmed from its black population,” writes Zamir.[34] Instead, “Du Bois not only exposed the myth of black criminality, but also laid a large part of the blame for the condition of the Seventh Ward at the doorstep of white prejudice and its enforcement in both overt and hidden ways.”[35] Applying the scientific methodologies he had learned at Harvard alongside his own inclination to specificity and meticulousness, Du Bois presented for the first time a definitive and indubitable argument that historical and social factors—including especially the effects of white racism on housing and employment opportunities for African Americans—were largely to blame for African American poverty rather than black inferiority, as white social scientists and others had insisted.

        In both The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois had used the tools of historical study and scientific research as a means by which to vindicate his race before a white audience and its prejudices. With The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, he had meticulously documented the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values, calling into question the popular notion of American exceptionalism and demonstrating the moral shortcomings of the nation. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois once again called into question the assumptions of white Americans by turning a study of African Americans into a mirror through which white Americans could see their own shortcomings and the ways in which those shortcomings created the conditions that prevented African Americans from social and economic advancement. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, still his most popular and influential work and widely considered a classic of American letters, Du Bois would set out to do still more than this in his refutation of racism.

[22] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, in Writings, 199–345.

[25] Yvonne Williams, “Harvard,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, eds. Gerald Home and Mary Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 99.

[26] Lewis, 141.

[27] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections: 1877–1934, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 38.

[28]  Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, eds., Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings (Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 338.

[29] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 596.

[30] Keith E. Byerman, Seizing the Word: History, Art, and the Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 51.

[31] Zamir, 89.

[32] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 1–2.

[33] Byerman, 52.

[34] Zamir, 89.

[35] Ibid.


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