W. E. B. Du Bois, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Study of Black Life

Today’s blog was written by Mary Kate Eckles, summer intern at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and a liberal arts student at St. John’s College

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was one of the leading academics on black life in the United States. He was a historian, sociologist, educator and the first African American to receive a Ph. D. from Harvard University. Du Bois was known for his progressive works on black life, which included The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) and Souls of Black Folks (1903).

In 1884, Carroll D. Wright, a statistician, became the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He planned to perform a large scale study on the working conditions of African Americans and wanted the assistance of Du Bois, who was known for his work on black life and the struggles of African Americans. The RG 257 Copies of Letters Sent 1889-1906 (NAID 7216243) series contains correspondences between Commissioners Wright and Charles P. Neill with Du Bois concerning various possible studies on black life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Under Wright, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published nine researched studies on the work and life of African Americans. When Du Bois first started working with the Bureau, he proposed several studies to Wright. Only one was accepted and received funding upon completion. The first study was the “The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study” (1898), which became the model for many of the Bureau’s black studies to follow. By 1901, when the first correspondences in the series were written, the Bureau had published seven different studies on the working conditions and lives of African Americans. Du Bois also contributed two other studies to the Bureau. These were “The Negro in the Black Belt: Some Social Sketches” (1899) and “The Negro Landholder of Georgia” (1901).

In 1905, Commissioner Wright retired and was replaced by Charles P. Neill, who was less inclined to see the need for studies on the working conditions of African Americans. After some delay, Neill gave $1,250 to Du Bois for his final study, which included a complete canvass of the 6,000 families in Lowndes County. By 1906, Du Bois requested assistance for the extension of his study to include white laborers in Lowndes County. Neill sent him two agents from the Bureau to help with the research. By the end of the correspondences, the study on Lowndes County is incomplete. It is, however, finished in 1907, and sent to the Bureau where it was not published, but rather destroyed for being too controversial. Du Bois was disgusted by this move and discontinued his association with the Bureau. Under Commissioner Neill, the Bureau did not publish another study on the working conditions and lives of African Americans.

2 thoughts on “W. E. B. Du Bois, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Study of Black Life

  1. I know where Farmville, VA is. I think this would be an interesting study given the times. I would like to compare it to the Farmville of today and see what the changes have been.

  2. I seem to remember from years ago that many (all?) of WEB Dubois papers ended up in the JFK Library. It would be interesting to see if some of the destroyed Lowndes County study info survived there.

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