Black Studies in the Department of Labor, 1897-1907
Editor’s Note: This entry, except for the photographs, is republished from the Department of Labor’s History File. Jonathan Grossman was the Chief Historian for the U.S. Department of Labor. This article originally appeared in the Monthly Labor Review of June 1974.
The Department helped break new ground, but, in a climate of racial strife, suddenly abandoned the black studies
At the dawn of the 20th century, when 8.5 million blacks constituted about 12 percent of the population of the United States, according to the distinguished black scholar, William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois, “not a single first‑grade college in America undertook to give any considerable scientific attention to the American Negro.”1 Yet between 1897 and 1903, the Department of Labor, then an agency without Cabinet status and forerunner of the present Bureau of Labor Statistics, published nine investigations, of varying length, importance, and point of view, about the condition of blacks in America. Du Bois himself prepared three of these studies. When, in 1906, Du Bois prepared another study for the Commissioner of Labor which he considered his finest sociological work, it was destroyed, willfully, according to its author. The fate of this 10th and last study raises fascinating questions.
These Department of Labor studies were closely related to the historically more famous Atlanta University publications. The first and the last departmental investigations were done by Atlanta University, and though other studies were independent, the relationship with Atlanta University was close. Both the Atlanta and the Department of Labor investigations were among pioneering “scientific” studies of the condition of blacks in America, and differed from the popular and primarily inspirational conferences at Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes which were “propaganda for social uplift.”
The cast of characters in the drama of black studies at the Department of Labor was large. The stars were Carroll D. Wright, the distinguished Commissioner of Labor from 1885 to 1905; George G. Bradford, a forgotten pioneer of both the Atlanta University and Department of Labor studies; and W. E. B. Du Bois, the brilliant scholar later turned militant propagandist. Also important was the dramatic and ambiguous role of Charles P. Neill, who was trapped by the great racial crisis at the time he succeeded Carroll Wright as Commissioner of Labor. Was he, as Du Bois implied, the villain? Or more important from the view of public policy, do his actions point to the need for protecting men of basic integrity from social and political pressures?
The origin of black studies
The origin of objective black studies is obscure, but scraps of evidence, though inconclusive, are intriguing. When Congress was debating in 1884 whether to create a Bureau of Labor, several newspapers commented on the fact that the bill failed to authorize the Commissioner of Labor to study conditions and employment of blacks. Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire, though friendly to black aspirations, objected to special black studies because “there are no distinctions of race or color in the eyes of the law.” Study of the condition of “the colored man is as much covered and protected by the scope of the bill as is the white man.” 2
There is some evidence that when Carroll Wright came from Massachusetts to head the newly created United States Bureau of Labor in 1885, be planned a large-scale study of black workers. Wright, earlier in his career, had investigated the conditions of blacks.3 Because the new Bureau was in the Department of Interior, Wright checked with his superior, the influential Secretary of Interior, Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus Lamar. Lamar, a former confederate General, and a former United States Senator from Mississippi, allegedly told Wright that such a study would be worthwhile, but that there would be “the devil to pay” in the South, if he, a Democrat from Mississippi, authorized Wright, a Republican from Massachusetts, to investigate conditions of blacks. Wright again sought authorization in 1888 from President Benjamin Harrison, and still later from President Grover Cleveland. Though the program finally undertaken by the Department under President William McKinley in 1897 was on a more modest scale than originally conceived, there is little doubt that Carroll Wright put the Bureau of Labor in the front line among serious investigators of the conditions of black Americans.4
The forgotten pioneer
Sometimes relatively unknown individuals flit across the historical scene, make important contributions, and disappear. Such a person is George G. Bradford, trailblazer for both the Atlanta University and Department of Labor black studies. Bradford, a trustee of Atlanta University from 1895 to 1902, 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. Along with the apostle of black higher education, President Horace Bumstead of Atlanta University, Bradford won the approval of the trustees of Atlanta University to initiate scientific studies of black city life.
At the first Atlanta Conference held at the university in May 1896, Bradford described his plans to study the physical and moral condition of city blacks which, he said, had not been studied previously in any extensive or systematic way. Each year graduates of Atlanta would study a different phase of black life. The first investigation would concern itself with mortality among blacks in cities, which ran about twice the death rate for the white city population.5
Bradford invited the Department of Labor 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. Both the Atlanta study and Department of Labor study used data gathered under Bradford’s guidance by about 50 black volunteers, including graduates of black colleges along with prominent black doctors, ministers, lawyers, and teachers. According to the Department of Labor, exclusive reliance on black volunteers made the work quite difficult, but it secured the “interest of the leading colored men of the country, upon whom would depend the success of any practical measures of reform that might be suggested by the results of the investigation.” And in the words of one of the investigators, the statistics were “more than usually accurate because of the investigators’ knowledge of the character, habits and prejudices of the people.” 6
Although the Department of Labor Bulletin was based on the same raw data and covered most of the same subjects as the first two Atlanta University studies, it was more detailed, more restrained, and much duller than the Atlanta version. Both the Department of Labor and Atlanta University used identical material showing excessive mortality rates among blacks of all ages. Both the Department of Labor and Atlanta University noted the pathetically high death rate among black and white children under age 5, with the black rate more than twice as high as the white. (The rates were 10 to 20 times as high as modern comparable child-mortality statistics.) Both studies observed that black women to a greater extent than white women were breadwinners and of the 1,157 black families studied, 57 percent were supported wholly or in part by a female head. Both studies provided statistics that syphilis was more prevalent among blacks than among whites.
By contrast with the Department of Labor, which presented data with only a little interpretation, the Atlanta University studies drew lessons to be applied. The Atlanta investigators followed the line of the “assimilationist” point of view, then in vogue among many educated blacks. They claimed that though blacks faced socially, politically, and economically unjust restrictions, many of their problems were selfinflicted. There were aspects of life in which blacks had an almost equal chance with whites and in which they could in large measure control their destiny and solve their own problems. Thus, the Atlanta investigators claimed that the very high death rate could not be attributed to an unfavorable environment but “rather to the ignorance of the masses of the people and their disregard of the laws of health and morality.” For them, the sad heritage of slavery with its “whipped women,” separation of wives from husbands, and assignment of female slaves to other men, explained, but did not excuse. Many childhood diseases grew out of neglect and licentiousness. “Infants in their graves will rise up in judgment against this evil and adulterous generation,” wrote one investigator. “The sine qua non of a change for the better . . . is a higher social morality.” 7
Although he was not the founder, were it not for W. E. B. Du Bois, the Atlanta studies and the Department of Labor studies might have died unnoticed following their publications of the conditions of city blacks in 1897. Bradford, though he was to remain a trustee of Atlanta University, could not run a business in Boston and direct studies in Atlanta at the same time. As he slipped into oblivion, Du Bois not only took his place, but created a new mold for the study of socioeconomic conditions of blacks.
W. E. B. Du Bois’ later and greater fame came as a militant leader of black aspirations. But his training at German universities and his Ph. D. at Harvard in the 1890s inculcated in him a devotion to objectivity which won for him in his early career distinction as a careful and creative scholar.
The black studies of the period grew out of the “scientific altruism” of the age. Carroll Wright, George Bradford, and W. E. B. Du Bois all believed that truth was the most potent medicine for curing the evils of society. Carroll Wright, for example, argued that labor statistics was a means of promoting the “material, social, intellectual, and moral prosperity” of the working people.8 As the range of Wright’s investigations grew broader, it was natural that he would also study the condition of black Americans. Bradford, in outlining plans for the Atlanta study, observed that some of the information which the investigators would uncover might be unpleasant. But, he warned, “if we are to make any progress, we must have the courage to look unpleasant facts in the face.”9Similarly Du Bois believed that “there is only one sure basis of social reform and that is Truth — a careful, detailed knowledge of the essential facts of each social problem. Without this there is no logical starting place for reform and uplift.”10 Racial prejudice, Du Bois believed, was based on ignorance. The remedy for outrageous treatment of blacks, based on doctrines of racial inferiority, was truth. Facts would prove that a man’s color limited neither his capacity nor his opportunity to share in the rewards of society.11
Du Bois and Wright
At the time that Atlanta University and the Department of Labor were cooperating on their study of the condition of blacks in various cities, Du Bois was completing his monumental study of Philadelphia blacks and had resolved to make his life goal the scientific study of black Americans. He would study what up to that time many concerned citizens merely discussed.
Du Bois wrote Carroll Wright, who encouraged him. At Wright’s suggestion he thought out methods of studying black industrial development and then wrote Wright a long letter suggesting preliminary studies which “would by allaying false notions and prejudices prepare the public mind for a larger work.” Du Bois then suggested 10 different plans of study. Wright accepted one of the plans but agreed to pay for it only if he were satisfied with it.12
Shaping black studies
Du Bois submitted to Wright his manuscript “The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study.” Wright liked and paid for this “first of a series of investigations of small, well‑defined groups of Negroes in various parts of the country.” This little research gem served as the model for many later studies.
Du Bois described Farmville, in Prince Edward County, as easy going, gossipy, and conservative. Farmville was a market town which attracted young country people, while at the same time, it sent boys and girls to Richmond, Norfolk, Baltimore, and New York. Farmville acted as a clearing house by training raw country lads in industrial life, and sending more or less well‑equipped recruits to metropolitan areas.
Du Bois lived with the Farmville Negroes, joined their social life, visited their homes, and asked each family and individual 21 questions concerning birth, sex, and age of each family member, occupation, wages, employment, landownership, and church attendance.
Du Bois reported that 1,350 Farmville blacks made up about 60 percent of the population. A moderate excess of women over men indicated some migration of men looking for better economic opportunity. Du Bois compared the Farmville age distribution with that estimated for blacks in the United States, with the total U.S. population, and with that of European countries. He then explained the excessive proportions of old people and of children under age 15 by people in their prime working ages migrating to cities and leaving their children with grandparents. This also accounted for the small proportion of black children in cities like Philadelphia.
In studying marriage he found that the second generation of freedmen postponed marriage for economic reasons. Delayed marriage, combined with easy sexual morality a by-product of slavery, reduced the sober influence of family life. Du Bois found his study of miscegenation very difficult because of racial intermingling going back for generations. However, he classified by personal appearance 750 individuals of whom 333 were apparently of unmixed Negro blood, 219 were brown, while 153 were yellow, or lighter, evidence of considerable infusion of white blood.
Du Bois reported that illiteracy was diminishing, but 23 percent of blacks between 10 and 20 years of age could neither read nor write. In investigating occupations, he found that entrepreneurs made up about 2 percent of the work force, domestic and industrial workers about 60 percent, and those not gainfully occupied about 25 percent. The jobs open to black men were limited, and jobs for black women were restricted to domestic service and housewifery. Du Bois also collected data on many other subjects such as wages, family income and budgets, value of black property, secret and beneficial societies, slums, gambling, liquor, local prostitution, and group, social, and religious life.
Du Bois concluded that studies of communities like Farmville brought to light good, bad, and indifferent conditions. One visitor might find Farmville blacks shiftless and lewd. Another might find them industrious, with steadily advancing educational and moral standards. These contradictory statements were both partially true, but when stated without reservation, they were misleading. Though Du Bois found the degree of sloth and immorality in Farmville dangerous, be believed that an impartial investigation showed that the industrious black citizen “best represents, on the whole, the general tendencies of the group.” 13
The black belt
While Du Bois was studying blacks in Farmville for the Department of Labor, he was selected as a professor in sociology at the University of Atlanta and given the responsibility of directing a thoroughly scientific investigation of the conditions of black life. Beginning with its third publication in 1898 on Some Efforts of American Negroes For Their Own Social Betterment, the Atlanta studies became the reflection of Du Bois’ scholarship and personality. Du Bois later claimed “without undue boasting that between 1896 and 1920 there was no study of race problems in America which did not depend in some degree upon the investigations made at Atlanta University.” 14
Du Bois continued Atlanta University’s association with Carroll Wright. One result was a study called “The Negro in the Black Belt: Some Social Sketches,” which the Department of Labor published in 1899. “The Negro in the Black Belt” was based on notes made by members of the senior class of Atlanta University who had firsthand knowledge of conditions among small groups of blacks whom they described. It is among the poorest works appearing under Du Bois’ name because the evidence was skimpy, and Du Bois drew broad conclusions based more on his personal knowledge than on the research of his students.15
Labor Department black studies, 1901-03
Although Atlanta University and the Department of Labor continued to cooperate, they also went their separate ways.16 Starting in January 1901, the Department of Labor published four studies by other investigators modeled on Du Bois’ Farmville, Va., report, and a fifth study based on Du Bois’ theme of the Atlanta investigation of black self-betterment.
Of the studies following Du Bois’ Farmville pattern, two were by William Taylor Thom, a Virginia college teacher of history and English who had written on Shakespeare and Chaucer and who had a Ph. D. from Johns Hopkins University. Carroll Wright authorized Thom to study first “The Negroes of Sandy Spring, Maryland,” then “The Negroes of Litwalton, Virginia,” and finally “The True Reformers,” a black self-help enterprise.
Sandy Spring in Montgomery County, Md., had been settled largely by Quakers who believed slavery was immoral and had emancipated their slaves before the Civil War. The fact that blacks had been free for several generations, Thom claimed, warranted a special investigation into the social and economic effect of freedom. However, his analysis of property ownership failed to prove that blacks whose families had been free before the Civil War had acquired more property than those who had been freed after the Civil War.17
Thom also studied Litwalton, Va., with a permanent population of about 400 blacks and 250 whites. The fortunes of the area rose and fell with one industry — oystering — in which relatively large amounts of money could be earned by hard work and good luck. However, according to Thom, economic conditions were not good, for blacks failed to take advantage of opportunities open to them.18
At Carroll Wright’s suggestion, Thom followed his two “Farmville type” reports with a short study of the True Reformers headquartered at Richmond, Va. Wright asked Thom to investigate their work because it “illustrates in very positive ways the social and economic attitudes of the Negro race.”19 Thom reported that “The ‘True Reformers’ constitutes probably the most remarkable Negro organization in the country.” It was founded in 1881 by an ex-slave with 100 members and a capital of $150. By the end of 1901 it provided death and sick benefits for 50,000 dues-paying members. Other “affiliated by-products” were a savings bank, a black economic journal, an old folks’ home, cooperative grocery and general merchandise stores, and a hotel .20
In November 1901, Carroll Wright received from Dr. J. Bradford Laws a paper on Louisiana plantation blacks. He agreed to pay Dr. Laws $125 for his study and made some changes “to better enable comparison with former Negro articles which we have published.” Law’s report was among the most derogatory of any of the Department of Labor’s black studies.
Sugar plantation Negroes were among the most backward in the United States. Laws reported conditions at Cinclare Central Factory and Calumet plantation, La., which were much worse than at Farmville, Litwalton, or Sandy Spring. The illiteracy rate was over 70 percent, and Louisiana blacks had low earning potential. According to Laws, plantation blacks never looked to the future and it was difficult to get them to work when they had a little money. Laws commented that:
“They very much dislike the gang system of labor and roam all over the country seeking jobwork, when they can work as they please…. As a race they are strong and healthy, but as they abuse themselves, they are not as a general thing, long‑lived. In trouble they are helpless. They lack confidence in themselves and are not ingenious in finding expedients. They are not the petty chicken thieves painted at the north. . . . They appear to have little intellectual and little moral capacity . . . .”21
Du Bois had also recognized the “lowest economic depth of the black American peasant,” but unlike Laws, he explained that black degradation had grown out of “a slave ancestry and a system of unrequited toil.” He compared the forced labor of blacks on plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas to that of serfs under feudalism. When Louisiana plantation blacks had tried to improve their condition in 1880 and 1886, their strikes were brutally smashed. Laws’ lack of perspective may have resulted in a report which was factually accurate but misleading.22
At the same time that Carroll Wright was working with Laws on the article on degraded plantation blacks of Louisiana, he was negotiating with Richard R. Wright, Jr., son of the president of a black college in Savannah, Ga., who had cooperated with the first Department of Labor study on the “Conditions of the Negro in Various Cities.” Carroll Wright agreed to pay Richard Wright $100 for a “social survey” of the blacks of Xenia, Ohio.
The Xenia, Ohio, investigation turned out to be an excellent study. It was the only Department of Labor report on Northern blacks, many of whom could trace their ancestry to runaway slaves but who had been free for several generations. Richard Wright’s report showed substantial black economic and social achievements. The degree of literacy was high. There were two black physicians and several other professionals. About 85 entrepreneurs conducted 75 businesses, while other blacks were in skilled trades, clerical work, or owned farms. Though many blacks remained in low-status occupations, such as common labor and domestic service, earnings were much higher than in Farmville, Sandy Spring, and other black communities studied, and blacks owned a considerable amount of property.23
Negro landholders of Georgia
While Thom, Laws, and Wright were following the pattern set by Du Bois’ Farmville investigation, Du Bois himself was striking out in new directions. His study of black landholders in Georgia, based on careful analysis of primary source documents, was made up of painstakingly developed tables of statistics and maps of Georgia showing black population county by county for each decade between 1790 and 1890. Landholdings were analyzed in those counties with substantial black populations, and tables included such items as acres of land owned by blacks and assessed valuation of the land. Du Bois must have slaved away countless hours extracting information from reports of the Comptroller-Generals of the State of Georgia which he supplemented with information obtained from tax receivers of individual counties who held the manuscript records with their separate lists of white and black taxpayers. Labor Department officials reviewed and checked these materials, map by map, arid table by table. The end result was a dry-as-dust study of changes in landownership over decades of time.
Yet even in this monotonous study there is that powerful undercurrent of black aspiration which distinguishes so much of Du Bois’ work. For Du Bois believed that the relation of blacks to ownership of the soil was of tremendous significance. By showing how the emancipated black and his children acquired land, Du Bois felt he was developing an index measuring the success of the freedman’s struggle upward. By 1900, blacks, who comprised nearly one-half the population of Georgia, owned only 4 percent of the total value of assessed property in Georgia. To an outsider these meager holdings might not be strong evidence of economic progress. But Du Bois showed that whatever little the black had acquired had been done against heavy odds, and that the value of black holdings was rising both absolutely and proportionately to white ownership. From these facts, Du Bois concluded hopefully:
“The Georgia Negro is in the midst of an unfinished cycle of property accumulation. He has steadily acquired property since the war, and in fully 100 counties he has continued this steady increase in the last decade.”24
Du Bois used the material gathered for his Department of Labor study in a less restrained fashion in his famous early book, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he substituted “throbbing human souls for statistics.” As an example he took Doherty County in the Georgia black belt, which had no black landholders on its tax rolls in 1870. Decade by decade, little by little, blacks acquired land which totaled 15,000 acres in the early 20th century. If America were truly a land of opportunity for all her sons, Du Bois observed, “we might call such a result small or even insignificant. But for a few thousand poor ignorant field hands” to acquire even a little property, meant a “bitter struggle, a hard and soul-sickening battle with the world.” These 15,000 acres were “proof of no little weight of the worth and ability of the Negro people.” 25
Different points of view
The Department of Labor studies varied not only in quality but also in point of view. Some of the attitudes expressed in these studies will strike the present-day reader as unusual. They are reported here to express the tenor of the times and the attitudes of the investigators. For example, different investigators showed different attitudes toward sexual morality. Du Bois described varying moral standards among different groups of blacks, praised virtuous family life among better class blacks, and explained the behavior of lower class blacks as a heritage of slavery and the problems of newly emancipated peoples in coping with the new environment. Thom, though not basically anti-black, nevertheless, found in Sandy Spring deterioration rather than progress. Dr. J. Bradford Laws reported that plantation blacks had only vague “notions of the marriage relations” and he severely criticized their sexual mores both inside and outside of marriage.
On “innate” black characteristics, Du Bois and Richard R. Wright, Jr., cultured men themselves, showed faith in the ability of lower class blacks to rise. Thom explained the alleged degeneration in Sandy Spring blacks as possibly being caused by “less active leadership on the part of whites,” or possibly by “a reversion toward ancestral type. . . .” The racist Dr. Laws branded blacks as hopelessly inferior.
Perhaps the greatest difference in view grew out of Du Bois’ observation in the Farmville study that the “group life of the Farmville Negroes” was:
“Pervaded by a peculiar hopefulness on the part of the people themselves. No one of them doubts in the least that one day black people will have all the rights they are now striving for, and that the Negro will be recognized among the earth’s great peoples.”
Richard R. Wright, Jr. agreed. He concluded that “The Negroes of Xenia are of a hopeful mood almost to unit [sic] . . . the future will see the Negroes better their condition as their environment becomes better.” By contrast Thom found little hopefulness either in Sandy Spring or Litwalton. Some more successful blacks saw things getting better, but some older blacks declared that though the younger set might read better and be worth more than their fathers, “in manner and character they were distinctly degenerates. In this opinion the whites of the community seem to coincide.” Dr. Laws was even more derogatory and concluded that “conditions have improved but little, if any, since freedom was given them.” 26
What accounts for such radically different viewpoints? One factor might be that conditions of blacks were radically different in such areas as Farmville, Va., Sandy Spring, Md., Calumet Plantation, La., or Xenia, Ohio. Another factor could be the race and, even more important, the attitude of the investigator. William Taylor Thom explained that blacks might respond differently to Du Bois who was “an educated member of their own race” than to an investigator like himself who was a “member of the dominant race.” Or perhaps another factor might be implicit in the lines of the black poet Paul Dunbar which Du Bois quoted on the page facing the introduction of the first study he supervised for Atlanta University:
The sky of brightest grey seems dark
To one whose sky was ever white,
To one who never knew a spark
Thro’ all his life of love or light,
The greyest cloud seems overbright .27
The decline of black studies
The Department of Labor’s investigations of blacks was making it the leading center of black studies in America. The Department published more investigations than did Atlanta University; it presented more points of view; and though it was perennially short of money, it had fewer budget problems than did the poverty-striken university which had to rely on voluntary contributions. To a large degree, the Atlanta University studies depended on questionnaires sent through the mail, which Carroll Wright three decades earlier had found unreliable. Labor Department studies were based on firsthand investigations and primary source documents. Moreover, the Department did not suffer the disability of Atlanta University. Du Bois explained: “We never ‘belonged’; we remained unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes. . . .” By contrast, Carroll Wright definitely “belonged.” He was a giant in academia, president of the American Statistical Association, and influential in other scholarly societies .28
But suddenly the Department of Labor lost interest in black studies. One reason was that the fight to deprive black Southerners of their rights was reaching a climax. Following the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the validity of “separate but equal” facilities, nearly all Southern States passed “Jim Crow” laws enforcing racial segregation. As Du Bois explained, “a legal caste system based on race and color, had been openly grafted on the democratic constitution of the United States.” 29 Calm discussion of economic and social conditions of blacks was becoming difficult.
A simpler explanation of loss of interest in black studies was the shortage of money and the demotion early in 1903 of the independent Department of Labor to a mere bureau in the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor, in which the Secretary had “authority to rearrange the statistical work of the bureaus” in the Department. Carroll Wright was ready to quit to become President of Clark College, but at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, hung on for 2 years longer as Commissioner of Labor. 30
The subordinated Bureau of Labor published only one black study, “The Negroes of Xenia, Ohio,” which had already been in progress before its demotion. Wright’s successor, Charles P. Neill, wrote Dr. Carl Kelsey of the University of Pennsylvania, that he “had not intended to continue that series of studies on Negroes.”31
The Lowndes County investigation
But Du Bois, still working on the premise that “truth will make us free” was tireless in his efforts for further investigations of conditions of the American black. He sought support from Carroll Wright and bombarded him with plans. Wright found particularly appealing Du Bois’ proposal to study social and economic conditions of blacks in Lowndes County, Ala., in the heart of the black belt.
Wright blew hot and cold on the Lowndes County study. The following are excerpts of some of Carroll Wright’s letters to W.E.B. Du Bois:
“I am not certain now whether I can take up any of the subjects which you suggest, but before deciding definitely I would like to know your idea of the first subject which you name that is, a study of conditions in Lowndes County, Alabama.32
“I think I may be able to authorize the Lowndes County study, provided I can pay for the report you make after the Month of June, 1903.33
“I do not believe it will be possible for us in the near future to take up the question of the Lowndes County Negroes. This is a financial question with us at the present time.”34
After Carroll Wright retired, Commissioner of Labor Charles P. Neill alternately raised and dashed Du Bois’ hopes. He telegraphed on June 26, 1905:
“Inform me of the cost of study . . . Wire reply.”
Then on July 7, 1905, Neill explained:
“At the time I wired you at Atlanta, we had some funds available . . . and not being able to get in touch with you, we closed an agreement for (other) work . . . if we have anything available at the end of the present fiscal year, I will be glad to take up the matter with you at that time. . . .”
Early in February 1906 Du Bois met with Neill and must have been very persuasive, for Neill shifted somewhat from his position against more black studies, but he stated that Du Bois’ would “be the only study of the Negro I would care to have made.” On February 16, 1906, Neill rejected a black study by Monroe N. Work, on the grounds that he had already made “partial arrangements” for a study of black workers. On May 7, 1906, Neill wrote to Richard R. Wright, Jr., rejecting a study he had suggested because of plans to have Du Bois make a “comprehensive study” of a black community. Neill received a comprehensive outline from Du Bois and met with him in Washington in June of 1906. Then followed a series of letters in the summer of 1906 from Neill to Du Bois in which the funds for the study were promised and deadlines set.
After 5 years of frustration and delay, Du Bois began what he considered the most important survey of black Americans up to that time. Du Bois wrote in his Autobiography:
“I wanted to take Lowndes County, Alabama, in a former slave state with a large majority of Negroes, and make a social and economic study from the earliest times when documents were available, down to the present; supplemented by studies of official records and a present house-to-house canvass of Negroes…. Helped by Monroe Work.…and R. R. Wright…and a dozen or more local employees, I settled at the Calhoun School and began the study.
“It was carried on with all sorts of difficulties, including financing…and with the greeting of some of my agents with shotguns in certain parts of the county; but it was eventually finished. The difficult schedules were tabulated and I made chronological maps of the division of the land; I considered the distribution of Labor; the relation of landlord and tenant; the political organization and the family life and the distribution of the population ….”35
The scope and difficulty of the study is borne out by extracts from Neill’s letters to Du Bois in the fall of 1906 which reveal that 6,000 families were to be studied and 10,000 copies of the Lowndes County schedules ordered printed. In addition, one or two agents from the Bureau were to be sent to Lowndes County to examine records of mortgages, liens, and crime, and records of the justice of the peace. These agents were also to secure information from white men regarding politics and sexual morality and were to take a census of white workers. Neill appeared a bit uncertain about the use of information collected and on October 17, he wrote Du Bois:
“I am not quite sure that the schedules which you have used for a colored census will serve for the census of white laborers; if not, I would suggest that you send me a form of schedule for this purpose at once.”
Recognizing the problem of resistance, Neill on November 7 wrote:
“I note what you say with reference to the difficulty of securing schedules in certain outlying districts, and if this difficulty is great and likely to arouse considerable antagonism, the canvass of families in these districts may be abandoned. Nevertheless, I trust that you will make the canvass as complete as possible.”
In the same letter, he assured the author that the law division of the Bureau had begun compiling laws and court decisions for Du Bois on selected subjects, a task Neill found “very considerable.”
Aside from a letter 2 weeks later telling Du Bois that he would have to have a special map made because those commercially available were inadequate, there is no further record because the method of filing correspondence was changed in a way which made it more difficult for later researchers to trace.
Du Bois, in his Autobiography, gives a skimpy version of his side of the story:
“The report was finished by hand with no copy, and rushed to Washington. I was criticized and I spent some weeks there in person, revising and perfecting it. It was finally accepted by the government, and $2,000 paid for it, most of which went back to the University. . . .
“I finally approached the Bureau and tried to find out when it would be published and was told the Bureau had decided not to publish the manuscript, since it ‘touched on political matters.’ I was astonished and disappointed, but after a year I went back to them again and asked if they would allow me to have the manuscript since they were not going to use it. They told me it had been destroyed! (Italics added.) 36
So ended the early Department of Labor black studies effort. More than a decade elapsed before the Bureau again studied conditions of black workers.
An exercise in speculation
Why, after so major an effort, was Du Bois’ work destroyed? One reason may have been that the Bureau of Labor was already under attack because of its reports on child labor which some Southern Congressmen charged were “vile and slanderous upon our people.” Senator Lee S. Overman of North Carolina later told his Senate colleagues that he protested to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Charles Nagel, who promised that some of the material would not be published.37
The problem the Bureau of Labor faced can be surmised from the experience of the Department of Justice. A U.S. attorney described a case involving J. W. Dixon, sheriff of Lowndes County, the same county Du Bois was studying. When the Grand Jury investigated an incredibly brutal case of forced labor, “five Dixon brothers rode up on their horses at 12 o’clock Saturday night” to warn one of the grand jurors “what to expect.” “These Dixons,” the U.S. attorney observed, “are men of the highest political and financial influence….They are large planters and control a great deal of labor….They are said to have killed several men. It is believed that witnesses are practically compelled to perjure their souls because they fear their lives…” The Dixons were not indicted.38 In the light of its own and Department of Justice experiences, Bureau of Labor officials might have doubts about publishing Du Bois’ investigation of social and economic conditions in Lowndes County.
Another difficulty may have been Du Bois’ growing militancy. While working in Lowndes County, he received news of the Atlanta riot of 1906 in which white mobs with police support invaded the Atlanta ghetto, killed four blacks, and wantonly destroyed black property. “I took the next train for Atlanta and my family,” he wrote. A “poor Negro in Central Georgia…had been lynched, and…his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store.” How could a scholar remain detached, Du Bois asked, when his black brothers were being starved, beaten, and lynched?39 He expressed his bitterness in his Litany of Atlanta, written on the train from Lowndes County to Atlanta:
“Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God….Sit no longer dumb, Lord God, deaf to our prayers and dumb to our dumb suffering. Surely Thou, too, are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing!”40
Du Bois’ attacks against Booker T. Washington may have been a factor in the rejection of his study. Not only did many blacks consider Washington as their peerless leader, but whites also treated him as the spokesman of black aspirations. But Du Bois challenged Washington’s implicit acceptance of black inferiority in return for modest economic rewards. President Theodore Roosevelt used Booker T. Washington as his power broker for Federal awards to blacks. Both Washington and Roosevelt considered Du Bois dangerous. And Booker T. Washington has been charged with using this power to throttle opponents. In an era of racial hatred, it would not have been hard to suppress an investigation of politics, living conditions, crime, landlord‑tenant relations, debt, economic peonage, miscegenation, and sexual morality in a county in the heart of the black belt.
Du Bois blamed the Bureau of Labor and Commissioner of Labor, Charles Neill, for the destruction of his Lowndes County study. That the Bureau and its Commissioner would do such a thing seems unbelievable. After all, the foundation upon which the Bureau was built was faithful investigation and fearless reporting. The mishandling of statistics, Carroll Wright said, was a “crime” punished by the “unwritten law” which sentences the “man who prostitutes the cause of humanity.”41
Although Charles Neill did not attain the stature of Carroll Wright whose place he took, he was a thoughtful scholar with a reputation for ability, integrity, and courage. He was a leader in the Catholic movements for ethical social conduct. He had backed Du Bois while he was investigating in Lowndes County. During his term as Commissioner, the Bureau investigated working conditions of women and children and industrial accidents. Neill created so many enemies because of his reports that his reconfirmation as Commissioner of Labor Statistics was twice rejected by the Senate .42
Yet as incongruous as it might seem, Du Bois was able to make a strong case in his charges against Neill. In the climate of the times, Du Bois’ study may have been too hot to handle.
Scholars like to say “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.” This is possible under conditions where reason can prevail. But sometimes when human passions are involved, people do not want their convictions challenged by fact. Such was the issue of the race relations in 1907 and 1908.
In this atmosphere Du Bois in part recanted his earlier philosophy. “I regarded it as axiomatic that the world wanted to learn the truth,” he wrote. “This was of course but a young man’s idealism, not by any means false, but also never universally true.” Without abandoning scholarship, Du Bois, in addition, became a propagandist for black social equality.
Neill also, like Du Bois, believed in the search for truth. But did he also have his limits? Did he consider the problems of publishing Du Bois’ report tantamount to statistical suicide for the Bureau? Did Neill think he could surrender on one front and still continue objective research in other areas? The fact remains that the Bureau’s failure to publish Du Bois’ report or to return the data to him, led Du Bois to point an accusing finger at Neill. In his Autobiography, Du Bois wrote:
“The successors of Carroll Wright deliberately destroyed this piece of my best sociological work.”43
5. Thomas N. Chase, ed., Mortality Among Negroes in Cities (Atlanta, Ga., Atlanta University, 1896), Atlanta University Publications, 1, pp. 3, 4; Clarence A. Bacote, The Story of Atlanta University, A Century of Service, 1865-1965 (Atlanta, Ga., Atlanta University, 1969), pp. 134-36.
6. “Conditions of the Negro in Various Cities,” Bulletin of the Department of Labor, 10 (May 1897), pp. 257-59; Social and Physical Condition of the Negroes in Cities (Atlanta, Ga., Atlanta University, 1897), Atlanta University Publications, 2, p. 5.
12. Du Bois, Autobiography, pp. 202-3, 226. Letter, W. E. B. Du Bois to Carroll D. Wright, May 5, 1897, Herbert Aptheker, ed., The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections, 1877-1934 (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), pp. 41-42.
15. W. E. B. Du Bois, ed., Some Efforts of American Negroes for their Own Social Betterment (Atlanta, Ga., Atlanta University, 1898), Atlanta University Publications 3, p. 45; W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Negro in the Black Belt: Some Social Sketches,” Bulletin of the Department of Labor 22 (May 1899), pp. 401-17.
16. See, for example, letters, Carroll D. Wright to W. E. B. Du Bois, Mar. 8, Dec. 2, 1902, Feb. 19, 1903 in Department of Labor, Letters Sent, National Archives Record Group 257, hereafter cited as NARG.
17. Thom, like Du Bois, investigated black migration, literacy, income and expenditures, and occupations with a special interest in black entrepreneurs. Letters, Carroll D. Wright to William Taylor Thom, Feb. 26 and Aug. 24, 1901, in Department of Labor, Letters Sent, NARG 257; William Taylor Thom, “The Negroes of Sandy Spring, Maryland: A Social Study,” Bulletin of the Department of Labor, 32 (January 1901), pp. 43-102.
21. J. Bradford Laws, “The Negroes of Cinclare Central Factory and Calumet Plantation, Louisiana,” Bulletin of the Department of Labor, 38 (January 1902), pp. 95-120; letters, Carroll D. Wright to Dr. J. Bradford Laws, Nov. 18, Dec. 4, 1901, Jan. 16, 1902, U.S. Department of Labor, Letters Sent, NARG 257.
22. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches (Chicago, A. C. McClurg, & Co., 1903), William Ivy Hair, Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics, 1877-1900 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana University Press, 1969), pp. 170-97.
23. Letters, Carroll D. Wright to Richard R. Wright, Jr., Dec. 12, 20, 1901; Jan. 3, 13, Nov. 8, 1902; Jan. 28, Feb. 16, June 19, July 2, 1903; U.S. Department of Labor, Letters Sent, NARG 257; Richard R. Wright, Jr., “The Negroes of Xenia, Ohio: A Social Study,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Bulletin, 48 (September 1903), pp. 1006-44.
37. John Lombardi, Labor’s Voice in the Cabinet (New York, Columbia University Press, 1942), p. 166; Congressional Record, 41 (Feb. 21, 1907), pp. 3579-84; Congressional Record, 45 (Jan. 27, 1910), p. 1086.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor History Files: http://www.dol.gov/dol/aboutdol/history/blackstudiestext.htm
(Accessed November 8, 2015)