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The Atlanta Conferences
W. E. Burghardt DuBois

DuBois, W. E. Burghardt. "The Atlanta Conferences." Voice of the Negro, Vol. 1, No. 3 (March 1904): pp.85-90.

Online Source:
The full text of DuBois's essay is availble at the Hathi Trust Digital Library in page image, PDF, and plain text formats: start page. The entire Volume 1 of Voice of the Negro is also accessible there: permanent link.

Robert Williams's Notes:
1. In this essay on "The Atlanta Conferences" Du Bois continued to present both his research goal and his basic principles for studying the conditions of African Americans in particular places. See "The Study of the Negro Problems" (1898) [available here on this site] and "The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University" (1903) [also available herein].

2. In Paragraph 1 of the essay below DuBois wrote that some sociologists conceived of society as a "metaphysical entity". In his unpublished paper "Sociology Hesitant" (circa 1905) DuBois discussed that very topic:
. . .Comte was strangely hesitant as to the real elements of Society which must sometime be studied—were they men or cells or atoms or something subtler than any of these? Apparently he did not answer but wandered on quickly to a study of "Society." And yet "Society" was but an abstraction. It was as though Newton, noticing falling as characteristic of matter and explaining this phenomenon as gravitation, had straightway sought to study some weird entity known as Falling instead of soberly investigating Things which fall. So Comte and his followers noted the grouping of men, the changing of government, the agreement in thought, and then, instead of a minute study of men grouping, changing and thinking, proposed to study the Group, the Change, and the Thought and call this new created Thing Society.  [Para.4]
     Mild doubters as to this method were cavalierly hushed by Spencer's verbal jugglery. . . .  [Para.5]
     Thus were we well started toward metaphysical wander­ings—studying not the Things themselves but the mystical Whole which it was argued bravely they did form because they logically must. [. . . .]  [Para.6]
Du Bois's "Sociology Hesitant" was published in the journal boundary 2 (v.27,n.3 (Fall 2000): pp.37-44).
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]   

The Atlanta Conferences
by W. E. Burghardt DuBois
The present condition of sociological study is peculiar and in many respects critical. Amid a multitude of interesting facts and conditions we are groping after a science—after reliable methods of observation and measurement, and after some enlightening way of systematizing and arranging the mass of accumulated material. Moreover the very immensity of the task gives us pause. What after all are we trying to do but to make a science of human action? And yet such a task seems so preposterous that there is scarce a sociologist the world over that would acknowledge such a plan. Rather, turning from so startling a task, they have assured the world that the object is to study a certain metaphysical entity called society—and when they have been asked earnestly and rather insistently just what society is, they have replied in language and once curious, mystical and at times contradictory. Has not the time come however when we should face our problem? In reality we seek to know how much of natural law there is in human conduct. Sociology is a science that seeks to measure the limits of chance in human action, or if you will excuse the paradox, it is the science of free will. Leaving then the definition of the science in this rather stupendous form we must turn to the fact that in reality we have sought to build upon a plan the breadth of which is not limited even by the ends of the world; and have taken all human action for our province and made the endeavor to collate and systematize the facts of human progress and organization; and the result is two sorts of sociological material—a number of thick books full of generalization more or less true and more or less systematic, but all liable to the same criticism, namely that while they have said many things well, they have neither permanently increased the amount of our own knowledge nor introduced in the maze of fact any illuminating system or satisfying interpretation. On the other hand we have a growing tangled mass of facts arising from social investigations, of all degrees of worth and reliability, bewildering in their quantity and baffling in their hidden meaning.

"a certain metaphysical entity called society" —See Note 2 by Robert Williams (above).

Du Bois repeated this idea of sociology as the inquiry into "the limits of chance in human action" in his Autobiography (1968: Ch. XVIII). In Dusk of Dawn Du Bois wrote that he "could see that the scientific task of the twentieth century would be to explore and measure the scope of chance and unreason in human action, which does not yield to argument but changes slowly and with difficulty after long study and careful development." (1940: Ch. 1). See also his 1944 essay, "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom": Para.75. Note that in his later years Du Bois pondered the "unreasonable" (i.e., irrational) dimensions of human thought and action that helped to perpetuate racial discrimination: for example, see "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom", especially Para.51 and Para.126.
Now the work of the next fifty years is to bring theory and practice in sociology nearer together, to connect more logically the statement and the demonstration and to make in truth the science of human action a true and systematic statement of the verifiable facts as ascertained by observation and measurement.
Now to bring about this result it is certain that we cannot at once compass all human action in time and eternity—the field is too vast and much valuable time has already been wasted in trying to do the impossible under the brilliant but questionable leadership of Herbert Spencer. We must more and more school ourselves to the minute study of limited fields of human action, or observation and accurate measurement are possible and where real illuminating knowledge can be had. The careful exhaustive study of the isolated group then is the ideal of the sociologist of the 20th century—from that may come a real knowledge of natural law as locally manifest—a glimpse and revelation of rhythm beyond this little center and at last careful, cautious generalization and formulation.
For such work their lies before the sociologist of the United States a peculiar opportunity. We have here going on before our eyes the evolution of a vast group of men from simpler primitive conditions to higher more complex civilization. I think it may safely be asserted that never in the history of the modern world has there been presented to men of a great nation so rare an opportunity to observe and measure and study the evolution of a great branch of the human race as is given to Americans in the study of the American Negro. Here is a crucial tests on a scale that is astounding and under circumstances peculiarly fortunate. By reason of color and color prejudice the group is isolated—by reason of incentive to change, the changes are rapid and kaleidoscopic; by reason of the peculiar environment, the action and reaction of social forces are seen and can be measured with more than usual ease. What is human progress and how is it emphasized? How do nations rise and fall? What is the meaning and value of certain human actions? Is there rhythm and law in the mass of the deeds of men—and if so how can it best be measured and stated—all such questions can be studied and answered in the case of the American Negro, if he shall be studied closely enough in a way to enlighten science and inspire philanthropy. Instead of vainly attacking the whole race mass of the world—instead of vainly seeking to attack the problems of social relations among all men and all peoples at all times, why in the name of common sense, does it not occur to American sociologists that their time and labor would be infinitely more effective for real scientific advance if applied to the study of the one rapidly developing group of people?

Regarding "a great branch of the human race", here Du Bois was reiterating the significance of Africans and those of the African diaspora, which he had earlier presented in works like "The Conservation of Races" (1897) [viewable on this site's page] and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) [accessible via links here].
Instead of this nothing can exceed our remarkable reprehensible ignorance of the Negro people. Even for the purposes of practical philanthropy, for the aid of education theories, for the knowledge of rare characteristics our ignorance is astounding. If the Negroes were still lost in the forests of central Africa we could have a government commission to go and measure their heads, but with 10 millions of them here under your noses I have in the past besought the Universities almost in vain to spend a single cent in a rational study of their characteristics and conditions. We can go to the South Sea Islands half way around the world and beat and shoot a weak people longing for freedom into the slavery of American color prejudice at the cost of hundreds of millions, and yet at Atlanta University we beg annually and beg in vain for the paltry sum of $500 simply to aid us in replacing gross and vindictive ignorance of race conditions with enlightening knowledge and systematic observation. There is no question before the scientific world in regard to which there is more guesswork and wild theorizing than in regard to causes and characteristics of the diverse human species. And yet here in America we have not only the opportunity to observe and measure nearly all the world's great races in juxta-position, but more than that to watch a long and intricate process of amalgamation carried on hundreds of years and result in millions of men of mixed blood. And yet because the subject of amalgamation with black races is a sore point with us, we have hitherto utterly neglected and thrown away every opportunity to study and note this past mulatto population and have deliberately and doggedly based our statements and conclusions concerning this class upon pure fiction or unvarnished lies. We do not even know the number of mixed bloods, the extent of the mixture, the characteristics, stature, or ability of the mixed; and yet there is scarcely a man or woman who would not be able or willing at a moment's notice to express a full and definite opinion concerning American Mulattoes, both here and everywhere, in time and eternity.
Such an attitude is allowable to the ignorant—it is expected among horses and among the uncultivated masses of men, but it is not expected of the scientific leaders of a great nation. On the contrary, it is fair to ask of them, first, to approach the question of the scientific study of a great race with open-mindedness and simple-hearted desire for truth, and in the second place that they let slip no such opportunity as this of widening the narrow boundaries of scientific truth. An example of what some have called Du Bois' elitism comes to the fore. Such a passage leaves no doubt about a principal audience to whom Du Bois was addressing this article. However, note that in Para.13 below, Du Bois might have been criticizing some of the "scientific leaders" for being short-sighted when it came to making financial contributions to his work at Atlanta University.
It is of course perfectly clear as to why scientific men have long fought shy of this field. The presence of the Negro in America has long been the subject of bitter and repeated controversy—of war and hate, of strife and turmoil. It has been said that so dangerous a field, where feelings were deep-seated and turbulent, was not the place for scientific calm of clear headed investigation. The nation will come to see—I trust is already beginning to realize—that this is a mistake; that no subject is so intricate and dangerous, as not to be infinitely more approachable in the clear light of knowledge than in the fog of prejudice and bitter feeling, and that the first business of any nation distracted by a great social problem is thoroughly to study and understand this problem.
The study of men however, is peculiar in being especially liable to the influences of prejudice which makes the inevitable scientific assumption with which all investigators must start difficult to agree upon. For instance, if the Negroes are not ordinary human beings, if their development is simply the retrogression of an inferior people, and the only possible future for the Negro, a future of inferiority, decline and death, then it is manifest that a study of such a group, while still of interest and scientific value is of less pressing and immediate necessity than the study of a group which is distinctly recognized as belonging to the great human family, whose advancement is possible, and whose future depends on its own efforts and the fairness and reasonableness of the dominant and surrounding group.
Now some assumptions of this kind are necessary. They must be held tentatively ever subject to change and revisions; and yet the scientific investigation must start with them. Now we at Atlanta University in making some small beginning toward the scientific study of the American Negro have made certain tentative assumptions. We have assumed that the Negro is a constituent member of the great human family, that he is capable of advancement and development, that mulattoes are not necessarily degenerates and that it is perfectly possible for the Negro people to become a great and civilized group. In making these assumptions we have kept before us the fact that every student knows, namely: that there is no adequate historical warrant for pronouncing the Negro race inferior to the other races of the world in a sense of unalterable destiny. To be sure we do not dogmatically assert what place the Negro really occupies in the human scale. We merely assume that clear evidence to the contrary being absolutely wanting, it is fair to place a great race of men who have for centuries come in contact with the world's greatest civilizations as a part and parcel of that world of men. We assume further the Negro's capability of advancement, not so much because of the progress he has already made, as because of the repeated failure of those theories that have placed metes and bounds to his development. We assume the essential manhood and capabilities of mulattoes because in the history of the race no differences between the blacks and half-bloods have been clearly enough established to warrant other assumptions. And above all we assume that given such effort as the Negroes are capable of and such response as the environment may give, the black people of the land will become as civilized as their fellows. We assume this because all the evidence which is reliable, points this way and the evidence on the other side is rather wish and prejudice than fact and observation.
Now, as I have said before, we take none of these positions dogmatically. We never consciously conceal an unpleasant truth that militates against our assumptions, nor do we allow ourselves to be swept by the prevailing dislike of the race into conclusions unwarranted by the facts or beyond the evidence. We are seeking the truth and seeking it despite the urging of friends and clamor of enemies; and in this seeking we demand and think we deserve the sympathy and aid of scientific men.
The object of the Atlanta Conference is to study the American Negro. The method employed is to divide the various aspects of his social conditions into ten great subjects. To treat one of these subjects each year as carefully and exhaustively as means will allow until the cycle is completed. To begin then again on the same cycle for a second ten years. So that in the course of a century, if the work is well done we shall have a continuous record on the condition and development of a group of 10 to 20 millions of men—a body of sociological material unsurpassed in human annals. Such an ambitious program is of course difficult to realize. We have, however, reached already the eighth year of the first cycle and have published seven reports and have the eighth in preparation; the sequence of subjects studied has not been altogether logical but will in the end be exhaustive.
In 1896 we studied the subject of health among the Negroes; in 1897, the subject of homes; in 1898, the question of organization; in 1899, the economic development in business lines; in 1900 the higher education of Negroes; in 1901, the common schools and in 1902, another phase of the economic developments—the Negro artisans. In 1903 we investigated the Negro church, and have still to take up the subjects of crime and the suffrage. We shall then begin the cycle again, studying in succession for the second decade, health, homes, occupations, organizations, religion, crime and suffrage. The Atlanta University Studies can be accessed online via a page on this site.
We have been greatly hampered in this work as I have intimated. First we have been unable as yet to convince any considerable number of the American people of the burning necessity of work of this sort and its deep scientific significance. We do not pretend that Atlanta University is the only fit centre for this work or that we are doing it in the best way. We do contend that the work ought to be done and that we are doing it better than any one else is trying. We receive some encouragement: the libraries are buying our reports; newspapers and periodicals are at times willing to assist in spreading our results and scientific workers give us aid and sympathy. The mass of thinking people, however, fail to realize the true significance of an attempt to study systematically the greatest social problem that has ever faced a great modern nation. We raise with difficulty $250 to $350 annually to carry on the work and we are not sure how long even that meagre sum will be forthcoming. Nevertheless, by the voluntary co-operation of Negro college bred men throughout the land and the goodness of other persons black and white we have succeeded in doing some reliable work. The need for money to conduct further research was regularly requested in the individual publications of the Atlanta University conferences.

A search at Google Books can locate several library catalogs that added various Atlanta University Studies to their collections, including the public libraries of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, as well as the state libraries of California, Massachusetts, and Virginia, and also the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Library.

Here Du Bois criticized the "mass of thinking people". Did he include any of the scientific elite that he has been addressing throughout the essay? Was he targeting philanthropists or those among the educated lay people who could contribute money?
The work on death rates was our first effort and necessarily limited. The study of homes and social conditions, however, was better done and its results were published by the United States Bureau of Labour, besides the papers in our report. The study of efforts at organization and social betterment entered a unique field and showed with interesting detail the progress of civilizing a group of men in the simple matters of every day life. In the economic field we sought to study the efforts by which the driven slave when emancipated had been made to become himself a master of men in the modern economic world. It was a story of struggle, failure and success and threw no little light on economic development in general. Then came a study of education; how far the higher training of Negroes fitting of unfitting men for real work—was an undue number studying Latin and Greek and was an appalling number of colleges opening their doors to black men. The result of this report corrected many misapprehensions. It showed only 2,500 college graduates among nine million of people, which does not look particularly alarming. It showed that fully 90 per cent. of them were in useful regular occupations and were property holders and respected citizens. It showed that there were too many Negro colleges of poor ranks and too few of high rank and adequate equipment. We showed the history of the public school for both races in the rural districts of the South and we insisted upon the novel, but as we think perfectly clear, proposition that Negro taxes, direct and indirect have since the war, entirely paid for Negro schools and that they have in no sense been a burden on the white tax payer. In 1902 we took up the subject of the Negro Artisan. We investigated the work of industrial schools, received returns from every National Trades Union in America and, three-fourths of the city central labor councils; in conjunction with the greatest Southern Industrial paper, the Chattanooga Tradesman, we made an investigation among employees of skilled Negro labor and finally corresponded with thousands of Negro artisans. The report on the Negro church is in press. The current U.S. Department of Labor web site contains "Black Studies in the Department of Labor, 1897-1907" by Jonathan Grossman [here] and a brief bibliography of the "Early Department of Labor Black Studies" [here].

The Atlanta University Publications can be accessed online via a page on this site.

Words like "undue" and "appalling" illustrate Du Bois' use of irony in a text otherwise noted for its rhetorical appeal to straight-forward reason and "no-nonsense" science. A rhetorical analysis thus highlights the multiple ways used by an author when trying to convince an audience (perhaps multiple audiences) about the truth and ethical rightness of some argument. A rhetorical analysis also can suggest the presence of several layers of meaning within a text itself.
Such has been the work of the Atlanta Conference. I cannot hope of course that our work has been entirely free of bias. I am a Negro and a Negro's son and I make no effort to conceal the fact that I believe most thoroughly in the capabilities and possibilities of my race. Nor is the belief wholly a matter of blood and prejudice, but is based on the intimate association in all relations of life with tens of thousands of my own race and with thousands of other races where I have had no ordinary means of knowledge and comparison. Nevertheless it is quite natural that I should have a tendency to see the bright side and emphasize the favorable points. Notwithstanding this I am sure that neither I nor my colleagues have ever conscientiously colored our reports or added one jot or tittle to the plain import of facts. This which we have striven to do ourselves is all we ask of others. We urge and invite all men of science into the field, but we plead for men of science—not for busy bodies, not for men with theories to sustain or prejudices to strengthen. We sincerely regret that there has been a tendency for so many men without adequate scientific knowledge and without conscientious study to pronounce public opinions and put gratuitious [sic] slurs on me and my people which were as insulting to us as they were to their own scientific reputations.
It is to be sincerely hoped that the day is rapidly passing when people will be listened to on great scientific questions unless they have prepared what they have to say conscientiously and thoroughly. We cannot as a nation afford to add to our reputation for carelessness and disregard of plain truth and duty. Here are nine millions of men among us. It is our duty to know them before we pre-judge them and as I have said before there is but one coward on earth and that is the coward that dare not know.

Du Bois is perhaps referencing his programmatic 1898 essay, "The Study of the Negro Problems". See the last sentence of Para.51 in that essay.
Next May we are going to hold a Conference on Negro Crime. We are going to try to study it conscientiously and fearlessly. We invite all to come to conference—white and black, Northerners and Southerners. Will you come?
[End of original text.]  

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