W. E. B. Du Bois and Black History Month
The year was 1949. Eighty-one-year-old W. E. B Du Bois was one year removed from his second stint at the NAACP, which lasted from 1944 to 1948. The year he left the NAACP he linked up with Paul Robeson and the Council on African Affairs. And in 1950, his first wife Nina Gomer died after complications from a stroke. In the late 1940s Du Bois remained an active scholar with books such as The World and Africa (1947), and his work in An Appeal to the World (1947) documented some of his activities in radical left politics, the peace movement, and mid-century Pan-Africanism.
In 1949, the seemingly indefatigable Black scholar had a full slate of activities for what at the time was called Negro History Week. On January 27, he recorded a radio spot for NBC. “A group of persons which, for any reason, is cut off from the main current of a nation’s life, loses not only its own full comprehensions of that life, but, more seriously, the nation itself fails to understand and integrate part of its own thought and action of which it is not fully aware . . . this lack of understanding is dangerous,” he observed. Later in the address, Du Bois references the political and cultural contributions Black Americans made to U.S. history “This is the reason we celebrate Negro History Week,” Du Bois argued, “It is not merely a matter of entertainment or information. It is part of our necessary spiritual equipment for making this country worth living in.”
A short time later, on February 7, he delivered a speech on Black history to the Worker’s Fellowship of the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. Du Bois opened his talk by praising the efforts of Carter G. Woodson. “This man standing almost alone,” he stated, “has virtually compelled the people of the United States at least once a year to recognize the fact that a tenth of their population . . . has developed a history worth knowing.” Commenting on the rise of Black history as a formal field of scholarly study, Du Bois spent most of his speech addressing matters of historical interpretation, especially national histories that omitted not just the presence of African people, but also the integral place of Africans in the United States. Here Du Bois glanced back to his 1935 book Black Reconstruction, most especially the final chapter on propaganda and history. “Negro History Week,” Du Bois concluded, “tries to bring these facts to the attention of the American people; to the attention of Negroes themselves to let them know that despite the silences and omissions and the distortions of history, Negroes in America have done a remarkable job in the personalities which they have given to the nation, in the contributions which they have made to the nation’s culture, into the expressions which they have contributed to American art.” For Du Bois, simplistic narratives of unfolding freedom and economic opportunity omitted the messiness of history and often displaced Black people and ideas from accounts of the past. He held that careful documentation, critical analysis, and interpretive clarity defined the practice of history not just for scholars but for public audiences as well.
Attendees at Du Bois’s 1949 presentation described it as a “splendid contribution” and a rousing ovation at the end of the speech testified to wide appreciation of his work. In addition, his address grabbed the attention of the Schomburg Library’s longtime curator Jean Blackwell Hutson who requested a copy of Du Bois’s speech. He forwarded it to her the following month.
Recounting these episodes of Du Bois’s 1949 Black History Month presentations reminds us of the importance of his work as a public intellectual. He traveled widely as a lecturer over the course of his career, especially during his later decades. It also pays tribute to the vital work of Black librarians, curators, and archivists, whose efforts have made, and make, Black intellectual history possible. The collective labor that produced the HBCU Library Alliance Digital Collection is but one recent example of important ongoing work in this regard. Finally, this account of Du Bois’s Black History Month presentations recalls that throughout his career, and to a greater degree in his twilight years, he never failed to recognize Negro History Week. While a full chronicle of Du Bois’s relationship to Black History Month is a topic worthy of further exploration about which I’ll have more to say on the blog in the future (and is made possible by the digitized and searchable Du Bois Papers in Credo at UMass Amherst), a list of some of his February speeches and writings over the four decades during which he was involved in Black History Month presents a fascinating archive that helps to trace out some of the larger mid-century debates over the politics of historical memory and the politics of Black history. So in conjunction with Brandon Byrd’s recent call for a Black History Month Bibliography, I present the following sources to assist us in broader understanding of some of the cultural work Black intellectual history has achieved over the last 90 years.
While in the 1920s Du Bois referenced Negro History Week in The Crisis, and corresponded with Carter G. Woodson about annual events of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, it was not until the 1930s that his formalized participation became more frequent and regular. One captivating source appeared in The Crisis magazine in 1934, “A Journey to Texas and New Orleans,” which chronicled his travels in the Gulf South as well as an excursion to Prairie View State College. Woodson commented about this particular trip in the April 1934 issue of The Journal of Negro History. He remarked that “the celebration” of Negro History Week “was taken seriously” in Texas and that Du Bois “was warmly received” during his lectures.
Starting in the 1940s and thereafter, the documentary record becomes more plentiful. There exist numerous manuscript sources of Du Bois’s Black History Month presentations. Of the nine selections below, some of these speeches became published articles, while others remain unpublished.
“Missing Pages in American History” (February 15, 1948, delivered @ The Boston Academy of Dramatic Arts)
“Should Negro History Be Taught as a Separate Subject?” (ca. 1950)
“The American Negro from 1901-1950” (February 10, 1950 in Chicago)
“Democracy in America” (February 13, 1956, published in National Guardian)
“Harlem” (February 12, 1960, delivered @ Market Place Library in NYC)
“The Lie of History as it is Taught Today” (February 15, 1960, published in National Guardian)
“Negro History, 800-1961” (ca. 1961, unpublished)
“American Negroes and Africa’s Rise to Freedom” (February 13, 1961, published in National Guardian)
“Negro History” (ca. 1962, unpublished)permission.