Edward Franklin Frazier, the most prominent African American sociologist of the 20th Century, was born on September 24, 1894 and died on May 17, 1962. Best known for his critical work on the black middle class, Black Bourgeoisie (1957), Frazier was also a harsh critic of Jim Crow as the great inhibitor of the American Dream for the “American Negro.”
Frazier was born to James H. and Mary Clark Frazier. His father worked as a bank messenger and his mother was a housewife. Both parents stressed the worth of education as a path to freedom and as an instrument to fight for social justice.
After graduating from Howard University with honors in 1916, Frazier taught at a variety of educational institutions including Tuskegee Institute, St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School in Virginia, and a Baltimore high school. In 1919 he arrived at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts to begin work on his M.A. in sociology which he completed a year later. Like many of his black contemporary scholars, Frazier used “philanthropic” funding to continue his studies at the New York School of Social Work, and overseas at the University of Copenhagen. Upon his return to the U.S. he accepted a position at Atlanta University as its director of social work. Frazier’s lifelong image as “harsh critic” was revealed in a scholarly essay, in a 1929 issue of Forum Magazine, entitled “The Pathology of Race Prejudice.” This was his essay to examine white racism and its effects on its black victims. Its penetrating critique, however, led to his dismissal from the university.
Frazier then entered the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and simultaneously acquired an instructorship at Fisk University. He completed the doctorate in 1931 with a dissertation entitled “The Negro Family in Chicago.” Frazier taught at Fisk until 1943 when he became the chair of the sociology department at Howard University where he remained until his death in 1962.
Frazier’s research rested on the assumption that black Americans had a fundamental right “to full participation in American Democracy.” Frazier’s research also critiqued racist research which argued for biological determinism in explaining the low achievement of blacks. His first major work, The Negro Family in the United States (1939), examined how social historical factors such as slavery, white terror, urban migration, and social disruptions affected the health of the African American family. He argued that African Americans were culturally American without any traces of their African past and thus launched an important intellectual debate with Melville J. Herskovits, a pioneer researcher in African retentions in black culture. Frazier continued this interpretation in subsequent works.
Black Bourgeoisie (1957) was Frazier’s most celebrated and criticized work. In this book, Frazier seared contemporary blacks who saw themselves as middle class. This false consciousness as he called it, led to a cultural elitism and material existence based solely on acquisitiveness.
E. Franklin Frazier died in Washington, D.C. in 1962.
Anthony M. Platt, E. Franklin Frazier (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991); August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Black Historians and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 (Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1986).
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