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).”