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.

However, contemporary philanthropic managers’ discussion on grantmaking in the most recent edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review suggests that, in today’s philanthropic climate, Myrdal’s study would still remain an attractive project and Du Bois’s pan-African encyclopedia would still find it difficult to secure funding. In this current issue, foundation leaders and scholars such as FSG’s John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell presented new guidelines for ensuring that foundations’ funding strategies are able to “solve today’s complex problems.” Respondents such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan, Monitor Institute President Katherine Fulton, and philanthropy scholar Kenneth Prewitt disagreed on the relative novelty of the author’s strategy. However, all discussants shared a common language that betrayed commonalities in how they all perceived the role of philanthropy. The writers and respondents alike used words such as “social problems,” “goals,” and “impact assessment” to describe the work of philanthropy. Put differently, contemporary philanthropy seems to see itself as tasked with addressing social problems, both complex and simple, and with measuring the impact of their funding decisions in addressing these various social problems.  

Du Bois’s encyclopedia did not plan to analyze or solve a social problem, whether simple or complex. Even if its scientific presentation on African Americans and Africans would serve to dispel racial prejudice (and in the abstract, serve as useful data for framing public policies), it was to be edited by an individual who had little chance of making a substantial social or policy impact in the U.S. at the time. Many leading white Americans perceived black American social scientists—unlike their white American colleagues—to be incapable of producing objective analyses of American race relations. From this perspective, many white Americans within and outside of the nation’s capital perceived W.E.B. Du Bois as a biased, impassioned scholar whose scholarship was far from objective, and thus, far from reliable for framing public policies. Du Bois’s encyclopedia likely would have had little impact in changing white Americans’ behavior or their public policies in any short-term, measurable way. Rather, it had the amorphous, long-term goal of correcting racial bias and encouraging racial pride among black Americans and Africans. By contrast, the white Swede’s study of black Americans was set up to analyze a societal problem and to impact public policies in Washington D.C. in the short-term and in measurable ways.

* * *

Last Saturday, President Barack Obama called upon Americans to observe the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

On this 60th anniversary of Brown, we can remember and celebrate philanthropy’s role in funding a path-breaking 1944 study that helped the U.S. Supreme Court justify its holding in this historic case. At the same time, we also can reflect on Du Bois’s failed proposal and ask if today’s foundations—so heavily focused on addressing social problems and quantifying social impact—would fund such a project.  

Funding is sometimes a zero sum game; and even as we celebrate the path towards Brown, it is worth remembering what was lost along the way. We could have benefitted from living in a world that would have produced both Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and W.E.B. Du Bois’s encyclopedia.  

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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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