W.E.B. DuBois and the Making of the Encyclopedia Africana, 1909-1963

W.E.B. DuBois and the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1936
W.E.B. DuBois and the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1936
Public Domain

In their introduction to Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, co-editors Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah describe W.E.B. DuBois’s half century campaign to publish an encyclopedia that would encompass the African diaspora.  That introduction appears below.

Between 1909 and his death in 1963, W E. B. Du Bois, the Harvard trained historian, sociologist, journalist, and political activist, dreamed of editing an “Encyclopaedia Africana.” He envisioned a comprehensive compendium of “scientific” knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent: of Africans in the Old World, African Americans in the New World, and persons of African descent who had risen to prominence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Du Bois sought to publish nothing less than the equivalent of a black Encyclopaedia Britannica, believing that such a broad assemblage of biography, interpretive essays, facts, and figures would do for the much denigrated black world of the twentieth century what Britannica and Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie had done for the European world of the eighteenth century. These publications, which consolidated the scholarly knowledge accumulated by academics and intellectuals in the Age of Reason, served both as a tangible sign of the enlightened skepticism that characterized that era of scholarship, and as a basis upon which further scholarship could be constructed. These encyclopedias became monuments to “scientific” inquiry, bulwarks against superstition, myth, and what their authors viewed as the false solace of religious faith. An encyclopedia of the African diaspora in Du Bois’s view would achieve these things for persons of African descent.

But a black encyclopedia would have an additional function. Its publication would, at least symbolically, unite the fragmented world of the African diaspora, a diaspora created by the European slave trade and the turn of the century “scramble for Africa.” Moreover, for Du Bois, marshalling the tools of “scientific knowledge,” as he would put it in his landmark essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia of the Negro” (1945), could also serve as a weapon in the war against racism: “There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.”

The publication of such an encyclopedia, Du Bois continued, would establish “a base for further advance and further study” of “questions affecting the Negro race.” An encyclopedia of the Negro, he reasoned, would establish both social policy and “social thought and discussion… upon a basis of accepted scientific conclusion.”

Du Bois first announced his desire to edit an “Encyclopaedia Africana” in a letter to Edward Wilmot Blyden, the Pan Africanist intellectual, in Sierra Leone in 1909: “I am venturing to address you on the subject of a Negro Encyclopaedia. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation of the American Negro, I am proposing to bring out an Encyclopaedia Africana covering the chief points in the history and condition of the Negro race.” Du Bois sent a similar letter to dozens of other scholars, white and black, including William James, Hugo Munsterberg, George Santayana, Albert Bushnell Hart (his professors at Harvard), President Charles William Eliot of Harvard, Sir Harry Johnston, Sir Flinders Petrie, Giuseppe Sergi, Franz Boas, J. E. Casely Hayford, John Hope, Kelly Miller, Benjamin Brawley, Anna Jones, Richard Greener, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and several others, all of whom with the sole exception of President Eliot   agreed to serve on his editorial board. Du Bois sought to create a board of “One Hundred Negro Americans, African and West Indian Scholars,” as he put it in a letter, and a second board of white advisors. Du Bois, in other words, sought the collaboration of the very best scholars of what we would call today African Studies and African American Studies, as well as prominent American and European intellectuals such as James and Boas.

Nevertheless, as he put it to Blyden, “the real work I want done by Negroes.” Du Bois, admitting that this plan was “still in embryo,” created official stationery that projected a publication date of the first volume in 1913 “the Jubilee of Emancipation in America and the Tercentenary of the Landing of the Negro.” The remaining four volumes would be published between 1913 and 1919.

Despite the nearly unanimous enthusiasm that greeted Du Bois’s call for participation, he could not secure the necessary funding to mount the massive effort necessary to edit an encyclopedia of the black world. But he never abandoned the idea. At the height of the Great Depression, the idea would surface once again.

Anson Phelps Stokes, head of the Phelps Stokes Association, a foundation dedicated to ameliorating race relations in America, called a meeting of 20 scholars and public figures at Howard University on November 7, 1931, to edit an “Encyclopedia of the Negro,” a Pan African encyclopedia similar to Du Bois’s 1909 project. Incredibly, neither Du Bois nor Alain Locke, a Harvard trained Ph.D. in philosophy or Carter G. Woodson who like Du Bois, was a Harvard Ph.D. in history and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, were invited to attend. Du Bois protested, angrily, to Phelps Stokes. A second meeting was convened on January 9, 1932, at which Du Bois was unanimously elected editor in chief. Between 1932 and 1946, Du Bois would serve as “Editor in Chief” of the second incarnation of his project, now named “The Encyclopaedia of the Negro,” and housed at 200 West 135th Street in New York City.

Du Bois planned a four volume encyclopedia, each volume comprising 500,000 words. Just as he had done in 1909, he secured the cooperation of an impressive array of scholars, including Charles Beard, Franz Boas, John R. Connors, Edith Abbott, Felix Frankfurter, Otto Klineburg, Carl Van Doren, H. L. Mencken, Roscoe Pound, Robert E. Park, Sidney Hook, Harold Laski, Broadus Mitchell, “and scores of others,” as Du Bois put it in a letter to the historian Charles Wesley. Du Bois’s “Encyclopaedia of the Negro” would require a budget of $225,000. It would be written by a staff of between “25 and 100 persons’ hired to be “research aides,” to be located in editorial offices to be established in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans. They would prepare bibliographies, collect books and manuscripts, and gather and write “special data’ and shorter entries. Black and white scholars, primarily located in Europe, America, and Africa, would write longer interpretive entries.

Du Bois tells us that his project was interrupted by the Depression for three years. But by 1935, he was actively engaged in its planning full tine which was made available by his forced resignation from his position as editor of the Crisis magazine, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Du Bois had held since its first publication in 1910. Du Bois had written an editorial advocating the development of independent Negro social and economic institutions, since the goal posts of the Civil Rights Movement appeared to be receding. The NAACP’s board of directors was outraged and demanded his resignation. Du Bois obliged. Du Bois sought funding virtually everywhere, including the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers’ Project, to no avail, despite the fact that Phelps Stokes had pledged, on a matching basis, half of the needed funds. He continued to write to hundreds of scholars, soliciting their cooperation. E. Franklin Frazier, the great black sociologist, declined Du Bois’s overture, citing in a letter dated November 7, 1936, the presence of too many “politicians,” “statesmen,” “big Negroes,” and “whites of good will” on Du Bois’s editorial board. Throw out the table of contents, fire the board of editors, replace them with scholars, Frazier wrote, and he would consider joining the project.

A few months before this exchange, Du Bois was viciously attacked by Carter G. Woodson in the black newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American. On May 30, 1936, a page one headline blared the news that Woodson “Calls Du Bois a Traitor if He Accepts Post,” with a subtitle adding for good measure: “He Told Ofays, We’d Write Own History.” Woodson charged that Du Bois had stolen the idea of The Encyclopedia of the Negro from him and that his project was doomed to failure because Du Bois was financed by, and his editorial board included, white people. Du Bois was embarrassed and sought to defend himself in letters to potential contributors and board members. Between his enemies at the NAACP and his intellectual rivals such as Woodson and Frazier, Du Bois faced an enormous amount of opposition to his encyclopedia project. In this swirl of controversy, in the midst of the Depression, funding appeared increasingly elusive.

Du Bois’s assistant editor, Rayford Logan, like Du Bois, Woodson, and Charles Wesley a Harvard trained Ph.D. in history, told a poignant story about the failure of this project to receive funding. By 1937, Du Bois had secured a pledge of $125,000 from the Phelps Stokes Fund to proceed with his project which comprised half of the funds needed to complete it. He applied to the Carnegie Corporation for the remaining half of his budget, with the strong endorsement of Phelps Stokes and the president of the General Education Board, a group of four or five private foundations that included the Rockefeller Foundation. So convinced was Du Bois that his project would finally be funded, that he invited Logan to wait with him for the telephone call that he had been promised immediately following the Carnegie board meeting. A bottle of vintage champagne sat chilling on Du Bois’s desk in a silver bucket, two cut crystal champagne flutes resting nearby.

The phone never rang. Persuaded that Du Bois was far too “radical” to serve as a model of disinterested scholarship, and lobbied by Du Bois’s intellectual enemies, such as the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, the Carnegie Corporation rejected the project.

Nevertheless, Du Bois stubbornly persisted, even publishing two putative “entries” from the Encyclopaedia in Phylon magazine in 1940, one on Robert Russa Moton, the principal of Tuskegee Institute between 1915 and 1935, the other on Alexander Pushkin. He even was able to publish two editions in 1945 and 1946 of a Preparatory Volume with Reference Lists and Reports of the Encyclopaedia of the Negro. But the project itself never could secure adequate backing.

David Levering Lewis, Du Bois’s biographer, tells us what happened to Du Bois’s promised funding. The executive committee of the General Education Board (GEB) rejected the proposal early in May 1937. “In his conference a few days later with Carnegie Corporation president Frederick Keppel, GEB’s Jackson Davis paradoxically pleaded for favorable Carnegie consideration of the project.  ‘Dr. Du Bois is the most influential Negro in the United States,’ Davis reminded Keppel. ‘This project would keep him busy for the rest of his life.’ Predictably, Carnegie declined. Within a remarkably short time, the study of the Negro (generously underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation) found a quite different direction under a Swedish scholar then unknown in the field of race relations, one whose understanding of American race problems was to be distinctly more psychological and less economic than was Du Bois’s …. When the president of the Phelps Stokes Fund wrote Du Bois in 1944 at the time of the publication of An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy that ‘there has been no one who has been quite so often quoted by [Gunnar] Myrdal than yourself,’ Du Bois must have savored the irony.”

Adding insult to injury, in 1948 the General Education Board, along with the Dodd Mead Publishing company approached Frederick Patterson, the president of Tuskegee Institute, to edit a new incarnation of the project, to be entitled The Negro: An Encyclopedia. Then in 1950, the historian Charles Wesley wrote to Du Bois, informing him that in the wake of Carter Woodson’s death, the association for the study of Negro Life and History had decided to resurrect The Encyclopaedia Africana project, reminding him of Woodson’s claims to have conceived of it in 1921. Du Bois wished him well, but cautioned him in a postscript that “there is no such thing as a cheap encyclopedia.” Everyone, it seemed, wanted to claim title to the encyclopedia, but no one wanted Du Bois to serve as its editor.  For black scholars, Africana had become the Holy Grail. Its publication, as Du Bois put it “would in mark an epoch.”

Long after Du Bois had abandoned all hope of realizing his great ambition, an offer of assistance would come quite unexpectedly from Africa.  On September 26, 1960, Du Bois announced that Kwame Nkrumah, the president of the newly independent Republic of Ghana, had invited him to repatriate to Ghana, where he would serve as the editor in chief of The Encyclopaedia Africana. Du Bois accepted, moving in 1961. On December 15, 1962, in his last public speech before his death on the eve of the March on Washington in August 1963, Du Bois addressed a conference assembled expressly to launch—at last—his great project.

He wanted to edit “an Encyclopaedia Africana based in Africa and compiled by Africans,” he announced, an encyclopedia that is “long overdue,” referring no doubt to his previously frustrated attempts. “Yet,” he continued with a certain grim satisfaction, “it is logical that such a work had to wait for independent Africans to carry it out [because] the encyclopedia is concerned with Africa as a whole.” Citing his own introductory essay in the Preparatory Volume of 1945, Du Bois justified this project by railing against “present thought and action” that are all too often guided by old and discarded theories of race and heredity, by misleading emphasis and silence of former histories.” After all of these centuries of slavery and colonialism, on the eve of the independence of the Continent, “it is African scholars themselves who will create the ultimate Encyclopaedia Africana.” Eight months later Du Bois would be dead, and with him died his 54 year old dream of shepherding a great black encyclopedia into print. Nevertheless, the Secretariat of the Encyclopaedia Africana, based in Accra, Ghana, which Du Bois founded, eventually published three volumes of biographical dictionaries, in the late seventies and early eighties, and has recently announced plans to publish an encyclopedia about the African continent in 2009, which is welcome news.