William Henry Ferris was born in New Haven, Connecticut on July 20, 1874 to David Henry, a volunteer for the Union Army during the Civil War, and Sarah Anne Jefferson Ferris. After high school, Ferris attended Yale University, where he was heavily influenced by polymath William Graham Sumner – a staunch Social Darwinist who firmly believed that the privileged social classes owed nothing to the underprivileged ones.
After graduating in 1895, William Ferris worked as a freelance writer and lecturer and studied for the ministry at Harvard Divinity School until 1899. In 1900, he received a Master of Arts in Journalism from Harvard, and went on to teach at Tallahassee State College in Florida and Florida Baptist College (1900-1901) and Henderson Normal School and Kittrell College in North Carolina (1903-1905).
In 1905, Ferris served a five-year term as Pastor of the Congregational Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1910, after being ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, he engaged in mission work in Lowell and Salem, Massachusetts.
An outspoken defender of civil rights for African Americans, Ferris was a critic of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist ideology and worked with William Monroe Trotter’s anti-Booker T. Washington publication Boston Guardian newspaper. Ferris also joined W. E. B. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement (1905-1909) and was a committed member of the American Negro Academy (1897-1924), the first organization of its kind to promote higher education for African Americans.
A member of the “Talented Tenth,” William Ferris was controversial among many African American intellectuals, receiving much criticism for what they labeled his “assimilationist mis-education.” An ambiguous figure, his rare mix of racial uplift ideology and Black Nationalism eventually isolated him from many of his “Talented Tenth” colleagues, including Du Bois and Trotter.
In his magnum opus, The African Abroad, or His Evolution in Western Civilization, Tracing His Development under Caucasian Milieu (1913), Ferris further weakened his reputation when he evaluated the cultural development of African people.
Responding to criticism of his seminal work, Ferris wrote to the chagrin of many African American intellectuals that, “after the Negro-Saxon has been made over into the image of the white man, he can hope to be made into the image of God.” Years earlier Ferris suggested that the term “Negro-Saxon” replace “Negro” as a less disparaging term and a more appropriate identification of blacks living in white societies.
However, Ferris’s unique stance on uplift for his race found a warm reception in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), where in 1919 he became Assistant President General and literary editor of Garvey’s Negro World newspaper. Strongly emphasizing the need for a bold resurgence in black manhood, Ferris publicly praised Garvey as a hero for black people, particularly black men, universally.
Ferris died in 1941 in Harlem, New York.