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by Earl Wright II, Texas Southern University
"Most sociologists are familiar with seminal achievements in the discipline including William Graham Sumner’s teaching of the first sociology course at Yale during the 1872-1873 academic term; Arthur B. Woodford’s recognition as the first instructor in the United States to have the word sociology in his official title (Indiana University in 1885); the establishment of the first named department of sociology in the United States at the University of Kansas (Department of History and Sociology in 1889); and the general recognition that the discipline formally began with the emergence of the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology in 1892" (Wright forthcoming). What is less well known is the idea that the discipline may have been earnestly birthed 10 years prior to the establishment of the American Sociological Society (later renamed American Sociological Association) at Atlanta University.
In 1895, Atlanta University President Horace Bumstead and school trustee George G. Bradford submitted a proposal before the school’s governing body requesting to initiate a series of investigations into the social, economic, and physical condition of Blacks. This request emerged from alumni who were witnessing Blacks, merely 30 years removed from slavery, making the arduous transitions to freedom and from rural to urban life. Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University) alumni called upon school administrators to scientifically study the condition of these transitions and develop recommendations for social or public policy to address the conditions identified. The proposal was approved, and, under the leadership of Bradford, Atlanta University social scientists began collecting data on this often mis-researched topic. In addition to the annual investigation, each spring the university hosted a conference where the data were presented. The initial studies were led by Bradford and proved to not merit much scholarly value beyond the accumulation of some encyclopedic data on Blacks (Du Bois 1968). However, upon the selection of W.E.B. Du Bois as director of the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problems in 1897, the school began its ascension to sociological distinction. Unfortunately, the massive accomplishments of Du Bois and his peers remain largely ignored and marginalized by mainstream sociologists more than 100 years later.
The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, the moniker used to identify as a collective the men and women engaged in sociological inquiry at Atlanta University, lasted from 1895 to 1924. During this period the school released 20 studies on Blacks in America. It was Du Bois’ utopian vision to develop this research program into a 100-year course of investigations into the social, economic, and physical condition of Blacks that would stretch from post-emancipation to, if it had come to fruition, the current era, which some (mis)characterize as post-racial.
Although he was unable to produce his desired research project on Blacks, Du Bois, director of 16 of the Atlanta University studies, spearheaded the institutionalization of numerous practices that have impacted the discipline. First, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first to institutionalize method triangulation (Wright 2002b). The use of multiple methods to answer the guiding research question of the annual investigations was implemented as early as the 1898 study. Second, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first to institutionalize the use of insider researchers (Wright 2002b). In 1896, President Bumstead emphasized the significance of insider researchers, when he theorized that Black researchers would not be viewed with as much suspicion as White researchers given that race relations in the late 1800s could hardly be viewed as egalitarian. Thus, Black researchers could obtain more reliable data than White researchers. Third, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first to institutionalize the public acknowledgement of the limitations of its research (Wright 2002b). Bumstead acknowledged at the inaugural conference that the collection of data for the investigations was not without error. Nevertheless, he surmised, it represented the most scholarly and objective data collected on Blacks to date. Fourth, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first to engage in institutionalized sociological research in the topical area urban sociology (Wright 2002a). This distinction has historically been credited to the Chicago School of Sociology, yet it must be noted that the Robert Park and Ernest Burgess-led accomplishments of the University of Chicago began circa 1917. By that time Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory had been actively engaged in research on urban sociology topics for more than 20 years. Fifth, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first to engage in institutionalized sociological research on the topic sociology of the south (Wright 2010). While this distinction has historically been attributed to Howard W. Odum, yet Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory had been engaged in the academic study of the sociology of the south nearly 20 years prior to Odum’s University of North Carolina efforts. When these accomplishments, plus others not mentioned, are holistically processed, it is without question that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory not only comprised the first American school of sociology (2002a), but also that Atlanta University can make a legitimate claim of being the birthplace of American sociology.
Robert Woodruff Library.
Photo courtesy of Georgia Department
of Economic Development.
ASA Annual Meeting attendees interested in visiting the first American school of sociology or examining primary data from that era should take the short trip to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and visit the campus of Clark Atlanta University and the Robert W. Woodruff Library. The AUC is a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities within walking distance of each other that includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College. Located 3 miles from the ASA hotels, at Clark Atlanta, a visitor can examine relevant artifacts from the era. At Woodruff Library you can view exhibits such as "Finding A Way: The Black Family’s Struggle for an Education at the Atlanta University Center." The exhibit features a photographic essay of the history of educational activities at the school including the research activities of Du Bois and members of the laboratory. The library also contains primary documents from the Atlanta University Studies, 1896 to 1917. Additionally, Woodruff Library is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. Without question a jaunt to the Mecca of higher education in the American South will provide a lifetime of memories and a treasure trove of information on the history of the discipline. The ASA is organizing a tour to the AUC and a second tour of the nearby West End Historic District. See the ASA meeting website at www.asanet.org/meetings/2010Home.cfm for more details.
The return of sociologists to Atlanta represents an opportunity for attendees to gain a better understanding of one of the most impactful collections of sociologists produced within this nation, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. It is my personal desire that interest in and analysis of the accomplishments of this school will result in its pronounced recognition in foundational sociology texts. The time has come for the men and women of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory to receive their deserved recognition from a discipline that has largely ignored them for more than 100 years. This marginalization continues despite the fact that many of their contributions are institutionalized by sociologists and in programs and departments of sociology throughout this nation. When the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory is afforded its proper recognition within the discipline of sociology, then and only then will the words of W.E.B. Du Bois begin to ring hollow:
"So far as the American world of science and letters was concerned, we never ‘belonged’; we remained unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes, and after all, what had Negroes to do with America or science?" (Du Bois 1968)
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International Publishers.
Wright II, Earl. Forthcoming. "The Tradition of Sociology at Fisk University" Journal of African American Studies.
__________. 2010. "W. E. B. Du Bois, Howard W. Odum and Sociology of the South." Department of Sociology, Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas. Unpublished manuscript.
__________. 2002a. "Using the Master’s Tools: Atlanta University and American Sociology, 1896-1924." Sociological Spectrum 22(1):15-39.
__________. 2002b. "Why Black People Tend To Shout!: An Earnest Attempt To Explain the Sociological Negation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory Despite Its Possible Unpleasantness." Sociological Spectrum 22(3):325-361.