Would Philanthropies Today Fund W.E.B. Du Bois’s Encyclopedia Africana?

Many contemporary foundations would want to tell you that, yes, unlike their predecessors, they would. But is that right?
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W.E.B. Du Bois (Library of Congress)

On April 7, 1938, 70-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois had invited his assistant editor to wait with him for the telephone call that would bring news that the board of trustees of the Rockefellers’ General Education Board had voted favorably to fund his "Encyclopedia Africana." This assistant remembers that Du Bois was so confident that the funding would go through that the senior scholar had with him a chilled bottle of champagne. However, the phone never rang and the money would never come. 

The famed social scientist would soon find out that neither the GEB nor the other foundation he had been courting, the Carnegie Corporation, would fund the encyclopedia. Adding insult to injury, the Corporation would be commissioning a comprehensive, policy-oriented social scientific study of African Americans of the size, scope, and budget previously unseen. And, they would not be inviting him to direct it. Rather, they had chosen the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal for the task and they would afford him unlimited funds to conduct his own research and to commission the work of other social scientists across the country.

Du Bois could only watch from afar with a sense of tempered envy and lost opportunity. Writing to a colleague in 1909, Du Bois had described the significance of the project: “I am venturing to address you on the subject of a Negro Encyclopedia. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation of the American Negro, I am proposing to bring out an Encyclopedia Africana covering the chief points in the history and condition of the Negro race.” Despite reaching out to many other colleagues, the project stalled. Twenty years later, the Phelps-Stokes Fund brought together fellow philanthropic managers and white and black American scholars to discuss plans for coordinating such an encyclopedia of Africans and African Americans. The plan was to fund a multi-volume encyclopedia to include important phases of black life and history, from “anthropological, ethnographical, biographical, historical, [and] educational” aspects to “industrial, economic, political, religious, psychological (including race relations, artistic, etc., etc).”  

To realize a project of the size and scope of the encyclopedia, the Phelps-Stokes Fund found it necessary to secure the financial assistance of larger foundations such as the General Education Board and the Carnegie Corporation. However, the Corporation had a particular vision in mind for a study of black Americans. In contrast to a pan-African encyclopedia which would highlight modern scientific knowledge proving racial equality and present the achievements of black Americans and Africans in the sciences and humanities, the Corporation wanted to study black Americans as a “social phenomenon,” or rather, as part of a broader problem in white-black relations. For the organization’s president, a key requirement was to impact social change. That led him quickly to focus on finding a scholar that both he and the policy establishment would consider “objective.” The Corporation dwindled down the list of candidates and selected a Swede with experience translating empirical analyses of societal problems into policy recommendations in his native country. The 39-year-old Gunnar Myrdal was an economist and a member of the Swedish Parliament whose work was well-received and respected among contemporary policymakers in Washington D.C.

Six years later, Myrdal’s final manuscript on the study of black Americans was published. Much as his funders had expected, the study successfully made a measurable policy impact. Most memorably, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it in Brown v. Board of Education to support its assertion that the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place in public school education. The Court reasoned: “Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority,” citing specifically Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Against this backdrop, the Carnegie Corporation has gone so far as to call Myrdal’s study “one of the most important results of grantmaking” at the organization.    

* * *

Today, it is fair to assume that many philanthropists and foundation leaders would celebrate both the Carnegie Corporation’s decision to fund An American Dilemma and the study’s ultimate impact in the United States. At the same time, contemporary philanthropists and philanthropic managers likely would say that they, unlike their predecessors in philanthropy, never would have left Du Bois out to dry. At the very least, they would have funded both studies. After all, W.E.B. Du Bois was a celebrated African-American scholar whose encyclopedia not only aimed to dispel whites’ racial prejudice against blacks, but also to stimulate racial pride among black Americans and Africans. It would have empowered these communities in ways that Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, written by a white European and focused on studying black Americans as part of a social problem, never would have and never did.

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Maribel Morey is a twentieth-century U.S. historian and historian of U.S. philanthropies. She is an assistant professor of history at Clemson University. 

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