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Monroe Nathan Work, a leading early 20th Century sociologist, was born on August 15, 1866 to his ex-slave parents in Iredell County, North Carolina. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Cairo, Illinois where Monroe’s father worked as a tenant farmer. They aspired to own their own land and in the early 1870s moved to Kansas and purchased a 160-acre farm in Summer County. Work received his elementary education in a local church building and stayed in Summer County to help on the farm until 1889, when his mother died and his father went to live with one of the married children.
At the age of 23 Monroe Work enrolled in high school in Arkansas City, Kansas. After graduating (third in his class), he tried teaching, preaching, and homesteading before continuing his education at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Work became disenchanted with seminary and transferred to the Sociology Department of the University of Chicago in 1898.
Work’s passion for sociology was driven by his belief that education eradicated racial prejudice. He once noted, “In the end, facts will help eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding, for facts are the truth and the truth shall set us free.” Thus began a life long career dedicated to finding and documenting the facts of black life in the United States.
While at the University of Chicago, Work wrote a paper on crime in the African American community that later became the first article written by a black scholar that was published in the American Journal of Sociology. Monroe Work also studied Africa, and wrote many articles about the continent and its culture that made him one of the pioneer scholars in that field.
In June of 1903, Work received his Master’s degree and accepted a faculty position at Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah. While in Savannah, Monroe worked with W.E.B. DuBois in the anti-Washington Niagara Movement (1905-1910). He also founded the Savannah Men’s Sunday Club (1905-1911), an organization dedicated to improving living conditions among poor African Americans in the city. In 1908, despite his membership in the Niagara Movement, Work accepted a position at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, and thus became the first man to work closely with both DuBois and Washington.
At Tuskegee Work founded the Department of Records and Research, where he compiled and catalogued a broad assortment of material on the African American experience. This research led to the publication of the first Negro Year Book in 1912 which became an annual (and later, periodic) publication. Negro Year Book was a permanent record of current events, an encyclopedia of facts, and a directory of persons and organizations. Published by Tuskegee, it became the most well known and accepted source of facts about black life in the United States. That same year Work also published the first of a biannual “lynching report” which for the first time exposed the nation on an ongoing basis to the practice. In 1928 Work published A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America. The book was the first of its kind and was used by many scholars and laymen interested in African America.
During his career Work published 66 lynching reports, nine editions of the Negro Year Book, and more than 70 articles. Monroe Work died at Tuskegee on May 2, 1945 at the age of 78. He was survived by his wife, Florence Hendrickson Work.
“Monroe Work” in Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1998); “Monroe Work” in Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982).
University of Washington, Seattle