Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 99: Who were the key scholars responsible for the discipline of black history?
The 500-year story of the African-American people, as we tried to show in our PBS documentary series Many Rivers to Cross, is inseparable from that of America as a whole. Not that long ago, lest we forget, the prevailing opinion in this country was that black people had no history—at least not one worth writing about or teaching. To refute that charge, it took generations of pioneering historians to recover the pieces of our buried and scattered past and to mend them into narratives as amazing as any the world has known. What to some was a joke—a futile effort in frivolity—was to these scholars a life’s calling. And in pursuing the black historical past so brilliantly and passionately, they succeeded in placing the American historical profession on much higher ground, and inspiring African Americans—and, over time, the country as a whole—to demand that the promise of citizenship and civil rights be fulfilled for a people who had waited for both so very long—too long, in fact.
As I prepare to conclude The Root’s 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro series with my 100th column next week—a retrospective on our old friend Joel A. Rogers—I’d like to honor a few of the great black historians whose diligent work and careful scholarship made it impossible for anyone to deny that African-American history was, and has always been, a fundamental part of American history.
Two of those historians you’ve met in earlier columns: Carter G. Woodson, “the father of Black History Month,” and George Washington Williams, “black America’s first investigative journalist.” The great W.E.B. Du Bois—the first black person in the world to earn a Ph.D. in history—has hovered over this entire series—as he does over African-American history as a whole. Permit me then to introduce you to five more academically trained black historians, with doctorates from accredited institutions you should know, whose books you should read and upon whose shoulders all scholars of African-American studies stand: Rayford W. Logan, Charles H. Wesley, Dorothy Porter Wesley, John Hope Franklin and John W. Blassingame Sr.
If ever a Mount Rushmore for black historians were to be carved on the face of a mountain, you can bet the eight faces I just mentioned would be on it.
1. Rayford W. Logan (1897-1982)
Born a year after Plessy v. Ferguson’s infamous “separate but equal” decree, Rayford Whittingham Logan was steeled as a child by stories about his free black lineage before the Civil War. His father toiled as a butler in the home of a prominent white family in Washington, D.C., that took an interest in Rayford’s education. After graduating first in his class from Dunbar High School in 1913, Logan attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where, four years later, he emerged a member of Phi Beta Kappa, ready to defend his country in the Great War. A member of the U.S. Army’s all-black 372nd Infantry Regiment, Logan took part in the battles of the Argonne in France in 1918 and was promoted from private to lieutenant.
After the war, he stayed in France for five years, lending key support to W.E.B. Du Bois’ fledgling Pan-African Congress. He developed especially close ties to the diplomatic corps of Haiti, the new world’s first independent black republic. Returning to the United States in 1924, Logan soon took up teaching duties at Virginia Union and Atlanta universities while assisting Carter G. Woodson in building the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History into a thriving research institution.
Somehow, Logan also found time to earn a master’s degree in history from Williams in 1929 and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1936 (incidentally, the university’s tercentenary). His Harvard dissertation, published as a book in 1941, was titled The Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Haiti, 1776-1891. It was groundbreaking, as Kenneth Janken writes in the African American National Biography: “In the 1920s and 1930s [Logan’s] scholarship on Haiti and colonial Africa earned him national recognition not only in the black diaspora—he was awarded Haiti’s Order of Honor and Merit in 1941 for his scholarship and advocacy—but also from influential, predominantly white organizations such as the Foreign Policy Association.”
After Harvard, Logan embarked on a distinguished teaching career at Howard University, serving as chairman of the history department from 1942 to 1968—a period that to many marks the long arc of the civil rights movement’s heroic phase. In this era of thunderous change, Logan was the quintessential scholar-activist, helping to launch voter registration drives and citizenship schools—activities that would later serve as a blueprint for Freedom Summer.
Logan played an especially critical role in the early years of World War II. Outside the halls of power, he organized mass protests against barring black soldiers from the Armed Forces, while inside, he lobbied and assisted President Franklin D. Roosevelt in drafting an order forbidding the exclusion.
In 1941, Logan was at it again, collaborating with black labor leader A. Philip Randolph on what would have been the first March on Washington had FDR not issued Executive Order 8802, which opened defense jobs to white and black citizens. After the war, Logan broadened his activism still further, again in partnership with Du Bois, to bend the emerging United Nations “toward justice and decolonization in Africa,” as Janken explains.
In the meantime, Logan devoted himself to editing the indispensible Dictionary of American Negro Biography (with Michael Winston) and was the author of such seminal studies as 1945’s The Negro and the Post-War World, 1948’s The African Mandates and World Politics and 1954’s The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877–1901.
Renowned African-American historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, my friend and colleague at Harvard, wrote to me of her former Howard professor, “[H]istory reveals Logan to be a prominent figure—an extremely influential historian in the Roosevelt era of the 1940s, from both a scholarly and political perspective (in the latter regard, not only for his work on Fair Employment but for his anticolonial writings on international trusteeship).” Logan died in Washington in 1981.
2. Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995)
It would be impossible to write about black history without mentioning the valiant efforts of that history’s most determined bibliographer, Dorothy Porter Wesley. The “Indiana Jones” of African Americana, Porter Wesley searched high and low, near and far, to secure lost books, manuscripts, letters, newspapers, speeches and reports. In the process, she became a priceless resource to scholars like me.
Born Dorothy Burnett in Warrenton, Va., she graduated from New Jersey’s Montclair High School in 1923 and collected teaching credentials from the Palmer Method of Business Writing and the Myrtilla Miner Normal School in Washington, D.C.
In 1930, she married the artist and Howard faculty member James Amos Porter. They had one daughter, Constance Porter Uzelac. While working in the library at Miner Teachers College in D.C. Porter Wesley was inspired by a role model, librarian Lula Allan, to switch career tracks, according to Uzelac in the African American National Biography. In 1931, a year after earning an A.B. at Howard, Porter Wesley became the first black woman to graduate with a B.S. from the Columbia University School of Library Service. There, with a Julius Rosenwald Fund scholarship, she also earned a master’s degree, in 1932.
“Porter Wesley devoted her life to the acquisition and collection of materials relating to the African and African American diaspora. She joined the library staff at Howard University in 1928, and in 1930 she [was] appointed to administer and organize a Library of Negro Life and History from a small collection of three thousand titles presented to Howard University in 1914 by Jesse Moorland. The doors opened in 1933 as the Moorland Foundation, and the collection grew to nearly 200,000 items by her [Porter Wesley’s] retirement in 1973, when it became known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.”
It would take up this entire column to name all of the scholars Porter Wesley guided through her library, but among them was “the herald of the Harlem Renaissance,” Alain Locke. John Henrik Clarke, a professor at Hunter College in New York, said of Porter Wesley: She was “in her prime Queen Mother of African-American bibliophiles and collectors.”
Among Porter Wesley’s seminal scholarly works were her 1936 bibliography, “A Selected List of Books by and About the Negro” (issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce); 1945’s “Early American Negro Writings: A Bibliographical Study” and “North American Negro Poets”; 1970’s “Early Negro Writing, 1760 to 1837”; 1970’s “The Negro in the United States: A Bibliography”; 1978’s “Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography”; 1986’s Remonds of Salem, Massachusetts: A Nineteenth Century Family Revisited; and, posthumously, with Uzelac, William Cooper Nell, Nineteenth-Century African American Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist; Selected Writings From 1832–1874.
In addition, Porter Wesley served as a representative of the National Council of Negro Women and on the executive council of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and she was on the editorial board of the Black Abolitionists Papers and Beacon Press. In the early 1960s, as part of the African independence movement, she was asked by the Ford Foundation to help establish Nigeria’s national library collection.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton bestowed on Porter Wesley the National Endowment for the Humanities Charles Frankel Prize, hailing her as “a preeminent archivist of African Americana.” She died the following year.
3. Charles H. Wesley (1891-1987)
Dorothy Porter Wesley’s second husband, Charles H. Wesley, was an outstanding historian in his own right. A native of Louisville, Ky., by age 14 Wesley had completed college prep courses at Fisk University, where he sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and studied classics before graduating with honors in 1911. Wesley then traveled to Yale University on a graduate fellowship and worked his way toward a master’s degree in history and economics two years later (again with honors)—all while waiting tables. After teaching and attending a year of law school at Howard, Wesley studied French in Europe, then returned to Washington, D.C., to serve as a minister and presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Wesley took a sabbatical from Howard to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard, and two years after graduating in 1925 (Harvard’s third black Ph.D. in history behind Du Bois and Woodson), his sensational dissertation, “Negro Labor in the United States,” was published to rave reviews for soundly rejecting the then-dominant assumption that blacks were lazy and incapable of skilled work. (This reminds me of my good friend Stanley Crouch’s famous line in the Jack Johnson documentary Unforgivable Blackness, “For people who have been slaves for 150 years doing all the work to be called lazy and shiftless by the man who was sitting on the porch—that is a phenomenon in itself.”)
Summarizing Wesley’s thesis in the African American National Biography, Robert L. Harris writes, “Wesley concluded that labor inequality during the early twentieth century resulted more from racial prejudice and discrimination against black workers than from any innate ability among whites.” Carter G. Woodson hailed Wesley’s triumph in the American Historical Review as “the only scientific treatment of Negro labor in the United States.”
In all, Wesley wrote 12 books—among them 1937’s The Collapse of the Confederacy and, when he was 92, The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service—as well as a forest of articles. His interests were wide ranging, from black fraternal organizations to Southern history and the history of slavery in the British Empire and in the United States. Among Welsey’s many achievements, in 1930 he became the first African American to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.
A teacher and an administrator, Wesley was promoted to full professor at Howard en route to becoming chairman of the history department and dean both of the College of Liberal Arts and the graduate school. He later served as president of Wilberforce and Central State universities. As important as his decades of service were to the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, where he succeeded Woodson as executive director in 1950, Wesley was especially concerned with how history was being taught in the nation’s public schools, which, in a democracy, are laboratories for citizenship.
He died in 1987, widely regarded, Harris writes, as “the dean of black historians.” Today, Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, which I’m proud to direct, awards the annual Charles Harris and Dorothy Porter Wesley Scholarship in honor of this dynamic duo.
4. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)
No star in the constellation of all-time American historians burns brighter than John Hope Franklin’s, whose landmark 1947 book, From Slavery to Freedom, my Yale undergraduate black history course textbook, remains a fixture on my nightstand. The first comprehensive and popular history of the black experience in America, it was significantly updated and revised by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, herself the first African American to receive tenure from the history department at Harvard, in 2008.
Franklin, too, like Du Bois, Woodson and Charles Wesley, had Harvard ties. He earned his Ph.D. in history there in 1941, and in 1969 the university offered him the first chairmanship of its nascent Afro-American studies department—although it refused to offer him a joint appointment in the history department, the same department in which he was trained. For Franklin, this was a deep professional insult, as it contradicted the central point of his scholarship: that African-American history was not to be ghettoized as a separate field of study but rather must be integrated into the study of history as a whole. The fact that Franklin was later awarded an honorary degree from Harvard and invited to speak “on behalf of the history profession” at the inauguration of the school’s first woman president, Drew Gilpin Faust, left little doubt about who had been right.
Born in 1915 in Rentiesville, Okla., not long before the notorious Tulsa race riot, John Hope Franklin graduated as valedictorian of his high school and magna cum laude from Fisk University in 1935. After his graduate studies at Harvard, he taught at several historically black colleges and universities, including Fisk, St. Augustine’s College, North Carolina College and Howard.
From Slavery to Freedom remains Franklin’s most influential book. Of the 20 volumes he wrote or edited, two others were particularly path breaking: The Militant South, 1800-1860 (1956) and Reconstruction After the Civil War (1961). He also wrote the definitive biography of an earlier black historian, George Washington Williams (1985) and, as a mark of his dedication to a truth that could be seen, arranged for a long overdue headstone for his subject in England.
“John Hope Franklin is a true role model,” the late Maya Angelou observed. “He embodies the native optimism, i.e., that one can go from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to intelligence, can experience cruelty, yet manifest kindness.”
In addition to his scholarship, Franklin was an adviser on the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. He chaired the history departments at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, was the first African-American leader of numerous professional organization and, in 1982, was appointed the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University, home today to the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. Before his death in 2009, Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he even had a species of orchid named after him.
No one practiced history as a profession better than John Hope Franklin did, and I still can be brought to tears when I think of all he did for me personally, including recommending me for the first group of MacArthur Fellows. As I said on his passing, “[W]e are all his godchildren.”
5. John W. Blassingame Sr. (1940-2000)
Few have had a more direct influence on my own work than my late friend and Yale colleague John W. Blassingame Sr., a scholar’s scholar and a master of the archives. Blassingame, more than any other historian, recast our enslaved ancestors both as central figures and as acting, thoughtful subjects in America’s freedom epic.
It’s hard to believe, but before Blassingame published his great work of scholarship, most historians were reluctant to use the testimony of the slave in their analyses of the institution of slavery, as if the slaves were somehow too biased to be “objective.” Blassingame turned to the authors of slave narratives to see what they had to say about how slavery functioned. But to do so, he had to establish them as reliable first-person narrators of this strange saga of American slavery, eyewitnesses from the inside of the “peculiar institution.”
Now, thanks to “Blass,” as we called him back at Yale, the slave narratives, and the slave’s point of view, are firmly fixed in the American historiographical canon. We should not underestimate the importance of Blassingame’s contribution to slave historiography.
Born and raised on the black side of the Jim Crow line in Covington and Social Circle, Ga., Blassingame earned a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley College in 1960 and a master’s degree from Howard in 1961, where he worked under the direction of Rayford W. Logan. Blassingame was one of the breakthrough generation that, because of affirmative action, integrated the nation’s historically white colleges and universities in the latter half of the ’60s. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale in 1971 and taught at Carnegie-Mellon and Maryland before returning to Yale, where he eventually chaired the African-American studies program.
“His impeccable training and credentials made him a stickler for the historical profession’s traditions, which emphasized the importance of primary sources,” writes Charles H. Ford in the African American National Biography. “[H]e was determined to use what had been considered the methods of conventional history to expose and reject the destructive myths of inherent white supremacy and its obverse, natural black dependency.”
In the 1970s, Blassingame churned out article after book after edited volume, including New Perspectives on Black Studies (1971), Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (1973) and his earth-shattering magnum opus, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972), which, Ford recounts, “was the first widely regarded historical monograph to use black autobiographies, songs, and folklore to expose vibrant African-inspired cultures that had shaped the making of mainstream American society and ideas. To Blassingame, slavery not only built America from a purely economic standpoint, but the slaves themselves from a wide variety of West African cultures influenced the most intimate and personal routines of their masters.”
Blassingame sacrificed his deepest reserves of energy to authenticating the primary documents of African-American history, as illustrated in his 1977 volume Slave Testimony; the six volumes of Frederick Douglass’s papers he edited over two decades, from 1979 and 1999; and 1982’s Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (with fellow historian Mary Frances Berry). And no historian, in his exalted position in the field, was more generous with his students—to which I personally can attest. Even though Blassingame died at the tragically young age of 59, he lives on in our teaching and work. I wouldn’t be doing what I do for a living without John Blassingame’s support and inspiration or that of the professor of the first Afro-American history survey course I took in my sophomore year at Yale back in 1969—the Pulitzer-winning historian, William S. McFeely.
In the landscape of memories I carry with me from those soaring days in New Haven, these two scholars are forever front and center.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, and I am sure other scholars would have their own candidates. My own short list includes only African-American historians who are deceased, who were academically trained and whose work focused primarily on the black experience. If I had more space in this column, my own list would expand to include some younger scholars, such as my dear friend Manning Marable.
But I would be remiss not to mention, even if just briefly, another Harvard professor who was certainly one of the pioneering black historians of his generation. Nathan Irvin Huggins (1927-1989), the first permanent director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (as it was called then) and my predecessor in the position I now occupy, earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1962 in history (as did Du Bois, Woodson, Wesley, Logan and Franklin) with a thesis on Boston charities. But Huggins’ most important contribution to black history was his intellectual history titled Harlem Renaissance, published in 1971, a must read for anyone studying that remarkable cultural movement of the 1920s. I have not written more about Huggins’ work here because I want to return to it when I launch my new column for The Root on “firsts” in the black tradition. Remember, this is the 99th column out of 100 in this series, so stay tuned for that!
Carter G. Woodson once said, “If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have [a history, a record], the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ They will say to you, ‘Who are you, anyway?’ ”
The five pioneering African-American historians outlined above, in addition to W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, George Washington Williams and, of course, Joel A. Rogers, answered that question resoundingly. Our people’s debt to them is profound, for “making a way out of no way.”
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.