"The Study of the Negro Problems"
— W. E. Burghardt Du Bois 
— W. E. Burghardt Du Bois 
Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. "The Study of the Negro Problems."The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. XI, January 1898, pp.1-23.
DuBois' article is accessible at Google Books: start page.
The full text of the Annals, Vol. XI is available at the Internet Archive: download page.
Robert Williams' Comment 1:
Here is a brief description (in its entirety) of the meeting at which Du Bois presented the paper that became the published essay, "The Study of the Negro Problems" (SNP):
The forty-fourth scientific session of the Academy was held on November 19, 1897. About five hundred persons were present who listened to a paper by Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, of Atlanta University on "The Study of the Negro Problem."[sic] The meeting was presided over by Charles C. Harrison, LL. D., Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. DuBois' paper was discussed by Professor John B. McMaster, of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. D. H. Williams, of Washington,
Rev. H. L. Phillips and Rev. Dr. Charles Wood, of Philadelphia.
Note 1 (Citation): Page 15 (DjVu p. 487) in Falkner, Roland P. (Chairman). 1898. "Report of the Executive Committee. (1897.)" Pp. 15-16 in Handbook of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1898). [The Handbook is a part of the Annals, Vol. XI, which can be downloaded.]
Note 2: The meeting place is Philadelphia. The anonymously written "Historical Sketch of the Academy" indicated: "The meetings of the Academy have been held at irregular intervals through the winter months in the city of Philadelphia." (p. 4: DjVu
p. 476)[pp. 3-14 within the volume cited in Note 1.]
DuBois's "The Study of the Negro Problems" (SNP) was announced in the New York Times (19 February 1898) within an anonymously written article entitled "Books and Authors". The entire brief passage is presented here:
"The Study of the Negro Problem." [sic] by W. E. B. Du Bois, will form Publication No. 219 of the American Academy of Political and Social Science of Philadelphia. Mr. Du Bois was recently appointed Professor of Social Science at Atlanta University, and has made a life study of this question.
Note 1 (Citation): Anonymous. "Books and Authors. Notes of Forthcoming and Recent Publications." New York Times, 19 February 1898; p.BR128, col.3 [Section title: "Saturday Review of Books and Art"].
In The American Monthly Review of Reviews (February 1898) an anonymously written notice of SNP was published within the section entitled "Reviews of Political and Social Science," which itself was part of a larger "Periodicals Reviewed" essay. Listed under the heading "Annals of the American Academy" we read the following notice (presented here verbatim and in its entirety):
The bi-monthly publication of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Philadelphia, January) contains several important papers, of which that on "The Study of the Negro Problems," by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, is perhaps the most noteworthy. The writer is himself a negro [sic] who has for some years pursued historical and statistical inquiries relative to his race.
There are also articles in this number on "The Relation of Postal Savings Banks to Commercial Banks," "The Economic Effects of Ship Canals," and "Administrative Centralization and Decentralization in France."
There are also articles in this number on "The Relation of Postal Savings Banks to Commercial Banks," "The Economic Effects of Ship Canals," and "Administrative Centralization and Decentralization in France."
Note 1 (Citation): Anonymous. "Reviews of Political and Social Science. Annals of the American Academy." American Monthly Review of Reviews, v.17, n.2 (February 1898): p.232.
Note 2: Online source at Google Books: p.232.
An anonymous comment on Du Bois' SNP essay was published in the Publications of the Southern History Association (April 1898). Because of its length it is posted at the bottom of this web page [below].
The American Journal of Sociology (May 1898) published a short summary of SNP and quoted several passages from the essay. This note emphasized the nature of the problems faced by African Americans, especially from U.S. social conditions.
Note 1 (Citation): Anonymous. "Notes and Abstracts. The Study of the Negro Problems." American Journal of Sociology, v.3, n.6 (May 1898): pp.864-865.
Note 2: Online source at the Internet Archive: full Vol. 3.
"Ch. Seignobos" wrote a brief note on SNP for the Revue Critique d'Histoire et de Littérature (1902) within a section on "Publications of the American Academy of political and social science. Philadelphie, American Academy." (pp.25-31). The following is the note in its entirety translated from the French:
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. The study of the negro problems. 1898, 29 p.The author, who shall publish a very fine monograph on the black population of Philadelphia next year, indicated here the problems that resulted from the transplantation of the negroes [sic] and their enfranchisement which threw a poor, ignorant and degraded negro [sic] population into the political and social life of the United States, and created against it a prejudice which makes assimilation even more difficult. It [the article] limits itself to outline a plan of studies and reforms.
Note 1 (Citation): Seignobos, Charles. "W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. The study of the negro problems." Revue Critique d'Histoire et de Littérature, v.53, no.3 (13 Janvier 1902): p.26.
Note 2: The original text in French reads:
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. The study of the negro problems. 1898, 29 p.L'auteur, qui devait l'année suivante publier une très belle monographie sur la population noire de Philadelphie, a indiqué ici les problèmes issus de la transplantation des nègres et de leur affranchissement qui a jeté dans la vie politique et sociale des États-Unis une population nègre pauvre, ignorante et dégradée, et créé contre elle un préjugé qui rend l'assimilation encore plus difficile. Il se borne à esquisser un plan d'études et de réformes.
Note 3: The note is accessible at Google Books: start page.
Note 4: I wish to thank my colleague Prof. Salima Bakkass for her gracious assistance in correcting a draft translation of the note from the French.
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]
THE STUDY OF THE NEGRO PROBLEMS.
|The present period in the development of sociological study is a trying one; it is the period of observation, research and comparison—work always wearisome, often aimless, without well-settled principles and guiding lines, and subject ever to the pertinent criticism: What, after all, has been accomplished? To this the one positive answer which years of research and speculation have been able to return is that the phenomena of society are worth the most careful and systematic study, and whether or not this study may eventually lead to a systematic body of knowledge deserving the name of science, it cannot in any case fail to give the world a mass of truth worth knowing.|
|Being then in a period of observation and comparison, we must confess to ourselves that the sociologists of few nations have so good an opportunity for observing the growth and evolution of society as those of the United States. The rapid rise of a young country, the vast social changes, the wonderful economic development, the bold political experiments, and the contact of varying moral standards—all these make for American students crucial tests of social action, microcosmic reproductions of long centuries of world history, and rapid—even violent—repetitions of great social problems. Here is a field for the sociologist—a field rich, but little worked, and full of great possibilities. European scholars envy our opportunities and it must be said to our credit that great interest in the observation of social phenomena has been aroused in the last decade—an interest of which much is ephemeral and superficial, but which opens the way for broad scholarship and scientific effort.|
|In one field, however,—and a field perhaps larger than any other single domain of social phenomena, there does not seem to have been awakened as yet a fitting realization of the opportunities for scientific inquiry. This is the group of social phenomena arising from the presence in this land of eight million persons of African descent.|
|It is my purpose in this paper to discuss certain considerations concerning the study of the social problems affecting American Negroes; first, as to the historical development of these problems; then as to the necessity for their careful systematic study at the present time; thirdly, as to the results of scientific study of the Negro up to this time; fourthly, as to the scope and method which future scientific inquiry should take, and, lastly, regarding the agencies by which this work can best be carried out.|
1. Development of the Negro Problems.A social problem is the failure of an organized social group to realize its group ideals, through the inability to adapt a certain desired line of action to given conditions of life. If, for instance, a government founded on universal manhood suffrage has a portion of its population so ignorant as to be unable to vote intelligently, such ignorance becomes a menacing social problem. The impossibility of economic and social development in a community where a large per cent of the population refuse to abide by the social rules of order, makes a problem of crime and lawlessness. Prostitution becomes a social problem when the demands of luxurious home life conflict with marriage customs.
|Thus a social problem is ever a relation between conditions and action, and as conditions and actions vary and change from group to group from time to time and from place to place, so social problems change, develop and grow. Consequently, though we ordinarily speak of the Negro problem as though it were one unchanged question, students must recognize the obvious facts that this problem, like others, has had a long historical development, has changed with the growth and evolution of the nation; moreover, that it is not one problem, but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves about those Africans whom two centuries of slave trading brought into the land.||The "Negro Problem" is historically constituted; it is not an eternal, unchanging, always-the-same issue, Du Bois indicated.|
|In the latter part of the seventeenth and early in the eighteenth centuries, the central and all-absorbing economic need of America was the creation of a proper labor supply to develop American wealth. This question had been answered in the West Indies by enslaving Indians and Negroes. In the colonies of the mainland it was answered by the importation of Negroes and indentured servants. Immediately then there arose the question of the legal status of these slaves and servants; and dozens of enactments, from Massachusetts to Georgia, were made "for the proper regulation of slaves and servants." Such statutes sought to solve problems of labor and not of race or color. Two circumstances, however, soon began to differentiate in the problem of labor, problems which concerned slaves for life from those which concerned servants for limited periods; and these circumstances were the economic superiority of the slave system, and the fact that the slaves were neither of the same race, language nor religion as the servants and their masters. In laboring classes thus widely separated there naturally arose a difference in legal andsocial standing. Colonial statutes soon ceased to embrace the regulations applying to slaves and servants in one chapter, and laws were passed for servants on the one hand and for Negro slaves on the other.|
|As slave labor, under the peculiar conditions of colonial life, increased in value and efficiency, the importations of Africans increased, while those of indented servants decreased; this gave rise to new social problems, namely, those of protecting a feeble civilization against an influx of barbarism and heathenism. Between 1750 and 1800 an increasing number of laws began to form a peculiar and systematic slave code based on a distinct idea of social caste. Even, as this slave code was developing, new social conditions changed the aspect of the problems. The laws hitherto had been made to fit a class distinguished by its condition more than by its race or color. There arose now, however, a class of English-speaking Negroes born on American soil, and members of Christian churches; there sprang from illicit intercourse and considerable intermarriage with indentured servants, a number of persons of mixed blood; there was also created by emancipation and the birth of black sons of white women a new class of free Negroes: all these developments led to a distinct beginning of group life among Negroes. Repeated attempts at organized insurrection were made; wholesale running away, like that which established the exiles in Florida, was resorted to; and a class of black landholders and voters arose. Such social movements brought the colonists face to face with new and serious problems; which they sought at first to settle in curious ways, denying the rite of baptism, establishing the legal presumption that all Negroes and mulattoes were slaves, and finally changing the Slave Code into a Black Code, replacing a caste of condition by a caste of race, harshly stopping legal sexual intercourse, and seeking to prevent further complications by restricting and even suppressing the slave-trade.|
|This concerted and determined action again changed the character of the Negro problems, but they did not cease to be grave. The inability of the Negro to escape from a servile caste into political freedom turned the problems of the group into problems of family life. On the separated plantations and in households the Negro became a constituent member of the family, speaking its language, worshiping in its churches, sharing its traditions, bearing its name, and sometimes sharing its blood; the talented slaves found large freedom in the intimate intercourse with the family which they enjoyed; they lost many traditions of their fatherland, and their ideals blended with the ideals of their new country. Some men began to see in this development a physical, economic and moral danger to the land, and they busied themselves with questions as to how they might provide for the development of white and black without demoralizing the one or amalgamating with the other. The solution of these difficulties was sought in a widespread attempt to eliminate the Negro from the family as he had formerly been eliminated from the state, by a process of emancipation that made him and his sons not even half-free, with the indefinite notion of colonizing the anomalous serfs thus created. This policy was carried out until one-half the land and one-sixth of the Negroes were quasi-freemen.|
|Just as the nation was on the point of realizing the futility of colonization, one of those strange incalculable world movements began to be felt throughout civilized states—a movement so vast that we call it the economic revolution of the nineteenth century. A world demand for crops peculiarly suited to the South, substituted in Europe the factory system for the house industry, and in America the large plantation slave system for the family patriarchy; slavery became an industrial system and not a training school for serfdom; the Black Codes underwent a sudden transformation which hardened the lot of the slave, facilitated the slave trade, hindered further emancipation and rendered the condition of the free Negro unbearable. The question of race and color in America assumed a new and peculiar importance when it thus lay at the basis of some of the world's greatest industries.|
|The change in industrial conditions, however, not only affected the demands of a world market, but so increased the efficiency of labor, that a labor system, which in 1750 was eminently successful, soon became under the altered conditions of 1850 not only an economic monstrosity, but a political menace, and so rapidly did the crisis develop that the whole evolution of the nation came to a standstill, and the settlement of our social problems had to be left to the clumsy method of brute force.|
|So far as the Negro race is concerned, the Civil War simply left us face to face with the same sort of problems of social condition and caste which were beginning to face the nation a century ago. It is these problems that we are to-day somewhat helplessly—not to say carelessly—facing, forgetful that they are living, growing social questions whose progeny will survive to curse the nation, unless we grapple with them manfully and intelligently.|
2. The Present Negro Problems.Such are some of the changes of condition and social movement which have, since 1619, altered and broadened the social problems grouped about the American Negro. In this development of successive questions about one centre, there is nothing peculiar to American history. Given any fixed condition or fact—a river Nile, a range of Alps, an alien race, or a national idea—and problems of society will at every stage of advance group themselves about it. All social growth means a succession of social problems—they constitute growth, they denote that laborious and often baffling adjustment of action and condition which is the essence of progress, and while a particular fact or circumstance may serve in one country as a rallying point of many intricate questions of adjustment, the absence of that particular fact would not mean the absence of all social problems. Questions of labor, caste, ignorance and race were bound to arise in America; they were simply complicated here and intensified there by the presence of the Negro.
|Turning now from this brief summary of the varied phases of these questions, let us inquire somewhat more carefully into the form under which the Negro problems present themselves to-day after 275 years of evolution. Their existence is plainly manifested by the fact that a definitely segregated mass of eight millions of Americans do not wholly share the national life of the people; are not an integral part of the social body. The points at which they fail to be incorporated into this group life constitute the particular Negro problems, which can be divided into two distinct but correlated parts, depending on two facts:||The starting point of analysis will be: how can the social, political, and economic exclusion of Blacks from the American social corpus be explained?|
|First—Negroes do not share the full national life because as a mass they have not reached a sufficiently high grade of culture.|
|Secondly—They do not share the full national life because there has always existed in America a conviction—varying in intensity, but always widespread—that people of Negro blood should not be admitted into the group life of the nation no matter what their condition might be.|
Considering the problems arising from the backward development of Negroes, we may say that the mass of this race does not reach the social standards of the nation with respect to
(a) Economic condition.
(b) Mental training.
(c) Social efficiency.
|Even if special legislation and organized relief intervene, freedmen always start life under an economic disadvantage which generations, perhaps centuries, cannot overcome. Again, of all the important constituent parts of our nation, the Negro is by far the most ignorant; nearly half of the race are absolutely illiterate, only a minority of the other half have thorough common school training, and but a remnant are liberally educated. The great deficiency of the Negro, however, is his small knowledge of the art of organized social life—that last expression of human culture. His development in group life was abruptly broken off by the slave ship, directed into abnormal channels and dwarfed by the Black Codes, and suddenly wrenched anew by the Emancipation Proclamation. He finds himself, therefore, peculiarly weak in that nice adaptation of individual life to the life of the group which is the essence of civilization. This is shown in the grosser forms of sexual immorality, disease and crime, and also in the difficulty of race organization for common ends in economic or in intellectual lines.|
|For these reasons the Negro would fall behind any average modern nation, and he is unusually handicapped in the midst of a nation which excels in its extraordinary economic development, its average of popular intelligence and in the boldness of its experiments in organized social life.|
|These problems of poverty, ignorance and social degradation differ from similar problems the world over in one important particular, and that is the fact that they are complicated by a peculiar environment. This constitutes the second class of Negro problems, and they rest, as has been said, on the widespread conviction among Americans that no persons of Negro descent should become constituent members of the social body. This feeling gives rise to economic problems, to educational problems, and nice questions of social morality; it makes it more difficult for black men to earn a living or spend their earnings as they will; it gives them poorer school facilities and restricted contact with cultured classes; and it becomes, throughout the land, a cause and excuse for discontent, lawlessness, laziness and injustice.||
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois would argue that this was a mutually reinforcing dynamic
3. The Necessity of Carefully Studying TheseSuch, barely stated, are the elements of the present Negro problems. It is to little purpose however to name the elements of a problem unless we can also say accurately to what extent each element enters into the final result: whether, for instance, the present difficulties arise more largely from ignorance than from prejudice, or vice versa. This we do not know, and here it is that every intelligent discussion of the American Negro comes to a standstill. Nearly a hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson complained that the nation had never studied the real condition of the slaves and that, therefore, all general conclusions about them were extremely hazardous. We of another age can scarcely say that we have made material progress in this study. Yet these problems, so vast and intricate, demanding trained research and expert analysis, touching questions that affect the very foundation of the republic and of human progress, increasing and multiplying year by year, would seem to urge the nation with increasing force to measure and trace and understand thoroughly the underlying elements of this example of human evolution.
Presumably referring to slaves of African descent, Jefferson wrote in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" (circa 1781-2):
The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation [....][Pp. 249-250 in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; v.3, 1781-1784. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1894), which is available at
|Now first we should study the Negro problems in order to distinguish between the different and distinct problems affecting this race. Nothing makes intelligent discussion of the Negro's position so fruitless as the repeated failure to discriminate between the different questions that concern him. If a Negro discusses the question, he is apt to discuss simply the problem of race prejudice; if a Southern white man writes on the subject he is apt to discuss problems of ignorance, crime and social degradation; and yet each calls the problem he discusses the Negro problem, leaving in the dark background the really crucial question as to the relative importance of the many problems involved. Before we can begin to study the Negro intelligently, we must realize definitely that not only is he affected by all the varying social forces that act on any nation at his stage of advancement, but that in addition to these there is reacting upon him the mighty power of a peculiar and unusual social environment which affects to some extent every other social force.|
|In the second place we should seek to know and measure carefully all the forces and conditions that go to make up these different problems, to trace the historical development of these conditions, and discover as far as possible the probable trend of further development. Without doubt this would be difficult work, and it can with much truth be objected that we cannot ascertain, by the methods of sociological research known to us, all such facts thoroughly and accurately. To this objection it is only necessary to answer that however difficult it may be to know all about the Negro, it is certain that we can know vastly more than we do, and that we can have our knowledge in more systematic and intelligible form. As things are, our opinions upon the Negro are more matters of faith than of knowledge. Every schoolboy is ready to discuss the matter, and there are few men that have not settled convictions. Such a situation is dangerous. Whenever any nation allows impulse, whim or hasty conjecture to usurp the place of conscious, normative, intelligent action, it is in grave danger. The sole aim of any society is to settle its problems in accordance with its highest ideals, and the only rational method of accomplishing this is to study those problems in the light of the best scientific research.|
|Finally, the American Negro deserves study for the great end of advancing the cause of science in general. No such opportunity to watch and measure the history and development of a great race of men ever presented itself to the scholars of a modern nation. If they miss this opportunity—if they do the work in a slip-shod, unsystematic manner—if they dally with the truth to humor the whims of the day, they do far more than hurt the good name of the American people; they hurt the cause of scientific truth the world over, they voluntarily decrease human knowledge of a universe of which we are ignorant enough, and they degrade the high end of truth-seeking in a day when they need more and more to dwell upon its sanctity.|
4. The Work Already Accomplished.It may be said that it is not altogether correct to assert that few attempts have been made to study these problems or to put the nation in possession of a body of truth in accordance with which it might act intelligently. It is far from my purpose to disparage in any way the work already done by students of these questions; much valuable effort has without doubt been put upon the field, and yet a careful survey of the field seems but to emphasize the fact that the work done bears but small proportion to the work still to be done.*
|Moreover the studies made hitherto can as a whole be justly criticized in three particulars: (1) They have not been based on a thorough knowledge of details; (2) they have been unsystematical; (3) they have been uncritical.|
|In few subjects have historians been more content to go on indefinitely repeating current traditions and uninvestigated facts. We are still gravely told that the slave trade ceased in 1808, that the docility of Africans made slave insurrections almost unknown, and that the Negro never developed in this country a self-conscious group life before 1860. In the hasty endeavor to cover a broad subject when the details were unknown, much superficial work has been current, like that, for instance, of a newspaper reporter who spent "the odd intervals of leisure in active newspaper work" for "nearly eighteen months," in the District of Columbia, and forthwith published a study of 80,000 Negroes, with observations on their institutions and development.||
The newspaper reporter is Edward Ingle and the quotation is from his The Negro in the District of Columbia (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical & Political Science, Eleventh Series, 1893), on. p. 9. The book is available at the Internet Archive (download page).
|Again, the work done has been lamentably unsystematic and fragmentary. Scientific work must be subdivided, but conclusions which affect the whole subject must be based on a study of the whole. One cannot study the Negro in freedom and come to general conclusions about his destiny without knowing his history in slavery. A vast set of problems having a common centre must, too, be studied according to some general plan, if the work of different students is to be compared or to go toward building a unified body of knowledge. A plan once begun must be carried out, and not like that of our erratic census reports, after allowing us to follow the size of farms in the South for three decades, suddenly leave us wondering as to the relation of farms and farm families. Students of black codes should not stop suddenly with 1863, and travelers and observers whose testimony would be of great value if arranged with some system and reasonably limited in time and space, must not ramble on without definite plan or purpose and render their whole work of doubtful value.|
|Most unfortunate of all, however, is the fact that so much of the work done on the Negro question is notoriously uncritical; uncritical from lack of discrimination in the selection and weighing of evidence; uncritical in choosing the proper point of view from which to study these problems, and, finally, uncritical from the distinct bias in the minds of so many writers. To illustrate, the layman who does not pretend to first hand knowledge of the subject and who would learn of students is to-day woefully puzzled by absolutely contradictory evidence. One student declares that Negroes are advancing in knowledge and ability; that they are working, establishing homes, and going into business, and that the problem will soon be one of the past. Another student of equal learning declares that the Negro is degenerating—sinking into crime and social immorality, receiving little help from education, still in the main a menial servant, and destined in a short time to settle the problem by dying entirely out. Such and many other contradictory conclusions arise from the uncritical use of material. A visitor to a great Negro school in the South catches the inspiration of youth, studies the work of graduates, and imbibes the hopes of teachers and immediately infers from the situation of a few hundred the general condition of a population numbering twice that of Holland. A college graduate sees the slums of a Southern city, looks at the plantation field hands, and has some experience with Negro servants, and from the laziness, crime and disease which he finds, draws conclusions as to eight millions of people, stretched from Maine to Texas and from Florida to Washington. We continually judge the whole from the part we are familiar with; we continually assume the material we have at hand to be typical; we reverently receive a column of figures without asking who collected them, how they were arranged, how far they are valid and what chances of error they contain; we receive the testimony of men without asking whether they were trained or ignorant, careful or careless, truthful or given to exaggeration, and, above all, whether they are giving facts or opinions. It is so easy for a man who has already formed his conclusions to receive any and all testimony in their favor without carefully weighing and testing it, that we sometimes find in serious scientific studies very curious proof of broad conclusions. To cite an extreme case, in a recently published study of the Negro, a part of the argument as to the physical condition of all these millions, is made to rest on the measurement of fifteen black boys in a New York reformatory.||
A long search for a source referencing "fifteen black boys in a New York reformatory" did not yield any success. However, perhaps DuBois is referring to Frederick L. Hoffman and his Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, which had been "recently published" (Publications of the American Economic Association; v.11, nos.1-3, 1896). Hoffman examined data about twelve young Black males in the Elmira Reformatory, New York, (pp. 163, 167). From that data and various other sources he inferred that the health of African Americans in general was weaker compared with Whites (p. 171), and was deteriorating over time (p. 176). Hoffman's Race Traits is available at the Internet Archive (download page) and at Google Books (About-this-book page or another copy).
|The widespread habit of studying the Negro from one point of view only, that of his influence on the white inhabitants, is also responsible for much uncritical work. The slaves are generally treated as one inert changeless mass, and most studies of slavery apparently have no conception of a social evolution and development among them. The slave code of a state is given, the progress of anti-slavery sentiment, the economic results of the system and the general influence of man on master are studied, but of the slave himself, of his group life and social institutions, of remaining traces of his African tribal life, of his amusements, his conversion to Christianity, his acquiring of the English tongue—in fine, of his whole reaction against his environment, of all this we hear little or nothing, and would apparently be expected to believe that the Negro arose from the dead in 1863. Yet all the testimony of law and custom, of tradition and present social condition, shows us that the Negro at the time of emancipation had passed through a social evolution which far separated him from his savage ancestors.|
|The most baneful cause of uncritical study of the Negro is the manifest and far-reaching bias of writers. Americans are born in many cases with deep, fierce convictions on the Negro question, and in other cases imbibe them from their environment. When such men come to write on the subject, without technical training, without breadth of view, and in some cases without a deep sense of the sanctity of scientific truth, their testimony, however interesting as opinion, must of necessity be worthless as science. Thus too often the testimony of Negroes and their friends has to be thrown out of court on account of the manifest prejudice of the writers; on the other hand, the testimony of many other writers in the North and especially in the South has to be received with reserve on account of too evident bias.|
|Such facts make the path of students and foreign observers peculiarly thorny. The foreigner's views, if he be not exceptionally astute, will depend largely on his letters of introduction; the home student's views, on his birthplace and parentage. All students are apt to fail to recognize the magnitude and importance of these problems, and to succumb to the vulgar temptation of basing on any little contribution they make to the study of these problems, general conclusions as to the origin and destiny of the Negro people in time and eternity. Thus we possess endless final judgments as to the American Negro emanating from men of influence and learning, in the very face of the fact known to every accurate student, that there exists to-day no sufficient material of proven reliability, upon which any scientist can base definite and final conclusions as to the present condition and tendencies of the eight million American Negroes; and that any person or publication purporting to give such conclusions simply makes statements which go beyond the reasonably proven evidence.|
5. A Program of Future Study.If we admit the deep importance of the Negro problems, the necessity of studying them, and certain shortcomings in work done up to this time, it would seem to be the clear duty of the American people, in the interests of scientific knowledge and social reform, to begin a broad and systematic study of the history and condition of the American Negroes. The scope and method of this study, however, needs to be generally agreed upon beforehand in its main outlines, not to hinder the freedom of individual students, but to systematize and unify effort so as to cover the wide field of investigation.
|The scope of any social study is first of all limited by the general attitude of public opinion toward truth and truth-seeking. If in regard to any social problem there is for any reason a persistent refusal on the part of the people to allow the truth to be known, then manifestly that problem cannot be studied. Undoubtedly much of the unsatisfactory work already done with regard to the Negro is due to this cause; the intense feeling that preceded and followed the war made a calm balanced research next to impossible. Even to-day there are certain phases of this question which we cannot hope to be allowed to study dispassionately and thoroughly, and these phases, too, are naturally those uppermost in the public mind. For instance, it is extremely doubtful if any satisfactory study of Negro crime and lynching can be made for a generation or more, in the present condition of the public mind, which renders it almost impossible to get at the facts and real conditions. On the other hand, public opinion has in the last decade become sufficiently liberal to open a broad field of investigation to students, and here lies the chance for effective work.|
|The right to enter this field undisturbed and untrammeled will depend largely on the attitude of science itself. Students must be careful to insist that science as such—be it physics, chemistry, psychology, or sociology—has but one simple aim: the discovery of truth. Its results lie open for the use of all men—merchants, physicians, men of letters, and philanthropists, but the aim of science itself is simple truth. Any attempt to give it a double aim, to make social reform the immediate instead of the mediate object of a search for truth, will inevitably tend to defeat both objects. The frequent alliance of sociological research with various panaceas and particular schemes of reform, has resulted in closely connecting social investigation with a good deal of groundless assumption and humbug in the popular mind. There will be at first some difficulty in bringing the Southern people, both black and white, to conceive of an earnest, careful study of the Negro problem which has not back of it some scheme of race amalgamation, political jobbery, or deportation to Africa. The new study of the American Negro must avoid such misapprehensions from the outset, by insisting that historical and statistical research has but one object, the ascertainment of the facts as to the social forces and conditions of one-eighth of the inhabitants of the land. Only by such rigid adherence to the true object of the scholar, can statesmen and philanthropists of all shades of belief be put into possession of a reliable body of truth which may guide their efforts to the best and largest success.|
|In the next place, a study of the Negro, like the study of any subject, must start out with certain generally admitted postulates. We must admit, for instance, that the field of study is large and varying, and that what is true of the Negro in Massachusetts is not necessarily true of the Negro in Louisiana; that what was true of the Negro in 1850 was not necessarily true in 1750; and that there are many distinct social problems affecting the Negro. Finally, if we would rally to this common ground of scientific inquiry all partisans and advocates, we must explicitly admit what all implicitly postulate—namely, that the Negro is a member of the human race, and as one who, in the light of history and experience, is capable to a degree of improvement and culture, is entitled to have his interests considered according to his numbers in all conclusions as to the common weal.|
|With these preliminary considerations we may say that the study of the Negro falls naturally into two categories, which though difficult to separate in practice, must for the sake of logical clearness, be kept distinct. They are (a) the study of the Negro as a social group, (b) the study of his peculiar social environment.|
The study of the Negro as a social group may be, for convenience, divided into four not exactly logical but seemingly most practicable divisions, viz:
1. Historical study,
2. Statistical investigation.
3. Anthropological measurement.
4. Sociological interpretation.
|Here Du Bois is enumerating different research approaches and their multiple methods. To some extent, Du Bois
a) had implemented them in a study conducted for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (the field work leading to The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia [pub'd 1898: online] having just been finished in the previous summer);
b) was using them in the 7th Ward of Philadelphia (his work there not yet finished at the time of this speech) [see page on this site]; and
c) would follow them in the later Atlanta University studies over which he was to have the chief responsibility [see page on this site].
|The material at hand for historical research is rich and abundant; there are the colonial statutes and records, the partially accessible archives of Great Britain, France and Spain, the collections of historical societies, the vast number of executive and congressional reports and documents, the state statutes, reports and publications, the reports of institutions and societies, the personal narratives and opinions of various observers and the periodical press covering nearly three centuries. From these sources can be gathered much new information upon the economic and social development of the Negro, upon the rise and decline of the slave-trade, the character, distribution and state of culture of the Africans, the evolution of the slave codes as expressing the life of the South, the rise of such peculiar expressions of Negro social history, as the Negro church, the economics of plantation life, the possession of private property by slaves, and the history of the oft-forgotten class of free Negroes. Such historical research must be subdivided in space and limited in time by the nature of the subject, the history of the different colonies and groups being followed and compared, the different periods of development receiving special study, and the whole subject being reviewed from different aspects.|
|The collection of statistics should be carried on with increased care and thoroughness. It is no credit to a great modern nation that so much well-grounded doubt can be thrown on our present knowledge of the simple matters of number, age, sex and conjugal condition in regard to our Negro population. General statistical investigations should avoid seeking to tabulate more intricate social conditions than the ones indicated. The concrete social status of the Negro can only be ascertained by intensive studies carried on in definitely limited localities, by competent investigators, in accordance with one general plan. Statistical study by groups is apt to be more accurately done and more easily accomplished, and able to secure more competent and responsible agents than any general census. General averages in so complicated a subject are apt to be dangerously misleading. This study should seek to ascertain by the most approved methods of social measurement the size and condition of families, the occupations and wages, the illiteracy of adults and education of children, the standard of living, the character of the dwellings, the property owned and rents paid, and the character of the organized group life. Such investigations should be extended until they cover the typical group life of Negroes in all sections of the land and should be so repeated from time to time in the same localities and with the same methods, as to be a measure of social development.|
|The third division of study is anthropological measurement, and it includes a scientific study of the Negro body. The most obvious peculiarity of the Negro—a peculiarity which is a large element in many of the problems affecting him—is his physical unlikeness to the people with whom he has been brought into contact. This difference is so striking that it has become the basis of a mass of theory, assumption and suggestion which is deep-rooted and yet rests on the flimsiest basis of scientific fact. That there are differences between the white and black races is certain, but just what those differences are is known to none with an approach to accuracy. Yet here in America is the most remarkable opportunity ever offered of studying these differences, of noting influences of climate and physical environment, and particularly of studying the effect of amalgamating two of the most diverse races in the world—another subject which rests under a cloud of ignorance.||
Perhaps Du Bois was alluding to the book by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon entitled Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches, Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1854), which contained pieces, by among others, Samuel George Morton and Louis Agassiz (viewable and downloadable at Google Books [title page]).
|The fourth division of this investigation is sociological interpretation; it should include the arrangement and interpretation of historical and statistical matter in the light of the experience of other nations and other ages; it should aim to study those finer manifestations of social life which history can but mention and which statistics can not count, such as the expression of Negro life as found in their hundred newspapers, their considerable literature, their music and folklore and their germ of esthetic life—in fine, in all the movements and customs among them that manifest the existence of a distinct social mind.||
Du Bois often made cross-national comparisons in his social-scientific works: for example, see his The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia (at a UVA site), or The Philadelphia Negro (links on a webdubois.org page).
|The second category of studies of the Negro has to do with his peculiar social environment. It will be difficult, as has been intimated, to separate a study of the group from a study of the environment, and yet the group action and the reaction of the surroundings must be kept clearly distinct if we expect to comprehend the Negro problems. The study of the environment may be carried on at the same time with a study of the group, only the two sets of forces must receive distinct measurement.|
|In such a field of inquiry it will be found difficult to do more than subdivide inquiry in time and space. The attempt should be made to isolate and study the tangible phenomena of Negro prejudice in all possible cases; its effect on the Negro's physical development, on his mental acquisitiveness, on his moral and social condition, as manifested in economic life, in legal sanctions and in crime and lawlessness. So, too, the influence of that same prejudice on American life and character would explain the otherwise inexplicable changes through which Negro prejudice has passed.|
|The plan of study thus sketched is, without doubt, long, difficult and costly, and yet is not more than commensurable with the size and importance of the subject with which it is to deal. It will take years and decades to carry out such a plan, with the barest measure of success, and yet there can be no doubt but that this plan or something similar to it, points to the quickest path toward the ultimate solution of the present difficulties.|
6. The Proper Agents for this Work.In conclusion it will not be out of place to suggest the agencies which seem best fitted to carry out a work of this magnitude. There will, without doubt, always be room for the individual working alone as he wills; if, however, we wish to cover the field systematically, and in reasonable time, only organized and concerted efforts will avail; and the requisite means, skill and preparation for such work can be furnished by two agencies alone: the government and the university.
|For simple, definite inquiries carried out periodically on a broad scale we should depend on the national and state governments. The decennial census properly organized under civil service rules should be the greatest single agency for collecting general information as to the Negro. If, however, the present Congress cannot be induced to organize a census bureau under proper Civil Service rules, and in accordance with the best expert advice, we must continue for many years more to depend on clumsy and ignorant methods of measurement in matters demanding accuracy and trained technique. It is possible also for the different national bureaus and for the state governments to study certain aspects of the Negro question over wide areas. A conspicuous example of this is the valuable educational statistics collected by Commissioner Harris, and the series of economic studies just instituted by the Bureau of Labor.|
|On the whole it may be laid down as axiomatic that government activity in the study of this problem should confine itself mainly to the ascertainment of simple facts covering a broad field. For the study of these social problems in their more complicated aspects, where the desideratum is intensive study, by trained minds, according to the best methods, the only competent agency is the university. Indeed, in no better way could the American university repay the unusual munificence of its benefactors than by placing before the nation a body of scientific truth in the light of which they could solve some of their most vexing social problems.|
|It is to the credit of the University of Pennsylvania that she has been the first to recognize her duty in this respect, and in so far as restricted means and opportunity allowed, has attempted to study the Negro problems in a single definite locality. This work needs to be extended to other groups, and carried out with larger system; and here it would seem is the opportunity of the Southern Negro college. We hear much of higher Negro education,and yet all candid people know there does not exist today in the centre of Negro population a single first-class fully equipped institution devoted to the higher education of Negroes; not more than three Negro institutions in the South deserve the name of college at all; and yet what is a Negro college but a vast college settlement for the study of a particular set of peculiarly baffling problems? What more effective or suitable agency could be found in which to focus the scientific efforts of the great universities of the North and East, than an institution situated in the very heart of these social problems, and made the centre of careful historical and statistical research? Without doubt the first effective step toward the solving of the Negro question will be the endowment of a Negro college which is not merely a teaching body, but a centre of sociological research, in close connection and co-operation with Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania.|
|In this direction the Negro conferences of Tuskeegee [sic] and Hampton are tending; and there is already inaugurated an actual beginning of work at Atlanta University. In 1896 this university brought into correspondence about one hundred Southern college-bred men and laid before them a plan of systematic investigation into certain problems of Negro city life, as, for instance, family conditions, dwellings, rents, ownership of homes, occupations, earnings, disease and death-rates. Each investigator took one or more small groups to study, and in this way fifty-nine groups, aggregating 5000 people in various parts of the country, were studied, and the results have been published by the United States Bureau of Labor. Such purely scientific work, done with an eye single to ascertaining true conditions, marks an era in our conception of the place of the Negro college, and it is certainly to be desired that Atlanta University may be enabled to continue this work as she proposes to do.||Contemporary works on the Tuskegee and Hampton Conferences can be located via Google Books: search results.|
|Finally, the necessity must again be emphasized of keeping clearly before students the object of all science, amid the turmoil and intense feeling that clouds the discussion of a burning social question. We live in a day when in spite of the brilliant accomplishments of a remarkable century, there is current much flippant criticism of scientific work; when the truth-seeker is too often pictured as devoid of human sympathy, and careless of human ideals. We are still prone in spite of all our culture to sneer at the heroism of the laboratory while we cheer the swagger of the street broil. At such a time true lovers of humanity can only hold higher the pure ideals of science, and continue to insist that if we would solve a problem we must study it, and that there is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.|
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois.University of Pennsylvania.
[ Du Bois's Note ] [ Return to text above ]* A bibliography of the American Negro is a much needed undertaking. The existing literature may be summarized briefly as follows: In the line of historical research there are such general studies of the Negro as Williams' "History of the Negro Race in America," Wilson's, Goodell's, Blake's, Copley's, Greeley's and Cobb's studies of slavery, and the treatment of the subject in the general histories of Bancroft, Von Holst and others. We have, too, brief special histories of the institution of slavery in Massachusetts, Connecticut, NewYork, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Maryland and North Carolina. The slave trade has been studied by Clarkson, Buxton, Benezet, Carey and others; Miss McDougall has written a monograph on fugitive slaves; the Slave Codes have been digested by Hurd, Stroud, Wheeler, Goodell and Cobb; the economic aspects of the slave system were brilliantly outlined by Cairnes, and a great amount of material is available, showing the development of anti-slavery opinion. Of statistical and sociological material the United States Government has collected much in its census and bureau reports; and congressional investigations, and state governments and societies have added something to this. Moreover, we have the statistical studies of DeBow, Helper, Gannett and Hoffman, the observations of Olmsted and Kemble, and the studies and interpretations by Chambers, Otken, Bruce, Cable, Fortune, Brackett, Ingle and Tourgée; foreign students, from De Tocqueville and Martineau to Halle and Bryce, have studied the subject; something has been done in collecting folklore and music, and in studying dialect, and some anthropological material has been collected. Beside this, there is a mass of periodical literature, of all degrees of value, teeming with opinions, observations, personal experiences and discussions.
The vast majority of authors cited here by Du Bois are available at Project Gutenberg; Google Books, and/or the Internet Archive. You might need to add the phrase
For example, at the Internet Archive you can locate:
* Hubert Howe Bancroft
* Anthony Benezet
* William O. Blake (W. O. Blake)
* Jeffrey Richardson Brackett
* Philip Alexander Bruce
* James Bryce
* Thomas Fowell Buxton
* George Washington Cable
* John Elliott Cairnes
* Henry Charles Carey
* John L. Carey
* Thomas Clarkson
* Thomas Read Rootes Cobb
* Stephen Colwell
* J. D. B. De Bow (James Dunwoody Brownson)
* Timothy Thomas Fortune (T. Thomas Fortune)
* William Goodell
* Horace Greeley
* Hinton Rowan Helper
* John C. Hurd (John Codman Hurd)
* Edward Ingle
* Frances Anne ("Fanny") Kemble
* Almon Wheeler Lauber
* Harriet Martineau
* Marion Gleason McDougall
* Frederick Law Olmsted
* George M. Stroud
* Alexis de Tocqueville
* Albion W. Tourgée
* the U.S. states mentioned
* United States Census Office
* Hermann Von Holst (H. Von Holst)
* George Washington Williams
* Henry Wilson
At Google Books, you can find works by:
* William Chambers
* Esther Copley
* Henry Gannett
* Charles H. Otken
* United States Census Office
* Ernst von Halle
* Jacob D. Wheeler
[ End of Du Bois' Essay ]
Anonymous Note on Du Bois'
"The Study of the Negro Problems"
An anonymous comment on SNP was published in the "Book Notes" section of the Publications of the Southern History Association (April 1898). Note that "Negro" is not capitalized in the original text, which is presented in its entirety as follows:
The 219th Publication of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Philadelphia, Pa., February 22, 1898), consists of The Study of the Negro Problems (8vo, pp. 29, 25 cents), by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Ph. D. The paper rapidly sketches the development and present condition of these problems, and briefly points out what might be done towards solving them. Dr. Du Bois, a negro himself, has had the advantages of training at both American and European universities. He has published several contributions to the negro question, including a minute investigation of the black population in a Virginia town, issued by the National Department of Labor. Hence the present article may be considered his conception of the magnitude and proper handling of the subject, and it is to that extent disappointing. Dr. Du Bois combines the strength and weakness of the modern methods of historical teaching and study; he is industrious and energetic, and he is a devotee of details. He thinks that we must not come to any conclusion about the negro problem until we have ticketed and marshaled all the facts about him, and about his environment, mental, moral and physical, past and present, never seeming to realize that even if this could be done, several million more facts would come into existence while we were arranging our cards, and we should have to chase and corral them before advancing further. He is one of the foremost of his race in this research, and much is to be hoped from his labors, but if he is to give up something of what DeQuincey calls the literature of power, rather than the literature of knowledge, he must look to his style. He takes three sentences to bring forth the platitude that the "aim of science itself is simple truth." He speaks of "Negro prejudice," when we do not know whether he means from or against the negro. But when he emphasizes the necessity of gathering this vast mass of facts, at the same time promising only "the barest measure of success," he is likely to appear absurd to practical men. In spite of defects, his strength, his enthusiasm, his capacity for hard work shine out, and he ought to produce something that would throw light on this sociological difficulty. [pp.186-187]
Note 1 (Citation): Anonymous. "Book Notes" ["The Study of the Negro Problems"]. Publications of the Southern History Association, v.2, n.2 (April 1898): pp.174-213, at pp.186-187.
Note 2: Online source at Google Books:
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