W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory

Earl Wright II

Under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, Atlanta became a hub of early American sociology with rigorous empirical studies of black communities. One hundred years later, that history has been pushed to the sidelines.

Temple University

At the 2015 conference of the American Sociological Association, five eminent scholars of W. E. B. Du Bois came together to discuss his works and his contributions to sociology. This essay has been adapted from the ASA panel discussion.    


While sitting in a master’s level graduate course in sociology in 1995, I suddenly and strongly became uncomfortable with the material being covered. The instructor was lecturing on the significant role played by members of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago during the discipline’s formative years in this nation. This is a subject that my cohort and I were knowledgeable of, since we had been offered similar treatise on the sociological significance and accomplishments of the Chicago School of Sociology, the moniker bestowed on members of the department of sociology between 1915-1940, in prior seminars and at professional sociology conferences. What stood out during this particular lecture was the instructor’s insistence that the Chicago School developed the first institutionalized program of urban sociological research in the nation. Moreover, this sociological ‘fact’ was combined with the proclamation that the Pittsburgh survey of the early 1900’s was the first urban sociological study conducted in the United States. While I acknowledged each of the accomplishments identified by the instructor with a ‘grain of salt’, the latter proclamation was the most difficult to swallow because of a unique childhood experience.

I lived with my grandparents for a part of my childhood. Periodic stays with my grandparents was a welcome escape from the hit-or-miss opportunities of eating food at my mom’s home and the lax security provided by a single parent whose job often made both her and me vulnerable to attack, given the late and early hours of arrival and departure from our duplex home. Beyond the assurance of a guaranteed meal and physical security, I enjoyed living with my grandparents because they had a bookshelf that contained volumes of writings that enabled me to imagine life beyond my circumscribed community. I remember looking at the bookshelf one day while trying to decide which book, at the age of ten, I wanted to read. All of a sudden one particular book jumped out at me. It was a book with a provocative title written by a man with a funny and long name. The book was The Philadelphia Negro by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. I was fascinated with the title because, being a southerner, we are always interested in the lives of ‘Yankees’ and, probably more interestingly, interested in their views of us. I was also fascinated by the author’s name. I had never come across a name that long before. As a ten year old I began to read, or more accurately stated, look through the pages of, Du Bois’s book. While I did not understand most of what was written, I absorbed the writings as best as I could and I examined the maps of the Seventh Ward Philadelphia community for hours. But while the provocative title and author’s funny name were memorable, the most memorable part of the book was that it was published in 1899. The idea that I was reading a book published in the 1800’s simply floored me. Over the next few years this book was always on my mind. Whenever I visited my grandparents I would look for the book to make sure it was still there. Little did I know how much that book would influence the trajectory of my life.

At the end of my first year as a master’s level student I began working on a thesis on Black male friendship bonds within the barbershop setting. Since there was relatively no data on Black barbershops in the existing literature, my thesis chair instructed me to focus broadly on urban sociology as part of the literature review. While conducting this literature review I came across works that highlighted the significance of the Chicago School to the discipline. I also, again, came across books that recognized the Pittsburgh survey as the first urban sociological study in the nation. These discoveries bothered me in the same manner as the instructor’s lecture, but I could not figure out why. Then one day while reading in the library­–yet another glowing account of the contributions of non-Blacks to the origin and development of the discipline in the United States–I had an ‘aha’ moment. As if it hit me as a ton of bricks, I flashed back to my grandparent’s bookshelf and that book with the provocative title written by the man with the funny and long name in 1899. I then realized that the discomfort I experienced in my seminar some time earlier and the trepidation of conducting the urban sociology literature review were probably my subconscious mind prodding me to think back to my grandparent’s bookshelf and challenging me to use that book to push back against claims promoted by virtually every sociologists that I had come into contact with up to that point, either directly or indirectly. Sitting alone in the library I thought to myself, “if the Chicago School of Sociology studies were conducted in the 1920’s and the Pittsburgh survey was conducted in 1907, why are they considered the earliest and most important urban sociological investigations?” Why is W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, not considered the first urban sociological investigation or even acknowledged by sociology instructors or in sociology textbooks? This question necessitated that I explore the existing literature to ascertain if and where Du Bois’s book fit within sociological discussions concerning early American urban sociological studies.[1]

My review of the existing literature was singularly focused was on proving why Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro, not the Pittsburgh survey, was the first urban sociological study conducted in the United States. Having no knowledge of his works prior to The Philadelphia Negro, the literature review search began with a quest to discover any works that Du Bois published prior to the Philadelphia study that could be considered an early, if not the earliest, example of urban sociological inquiry. During my review of the exiting literature I became increasingly aware of references to Atlanta University and the annual investigations Du Bois directed at the school. Shortly thereafter, I became aware of the twenty volumes of the Atlanta University Study of the Negro Problems. After reading the entire set of studies, I was simultaneously awestruck and dumbfounded. If I were correct in the assessment of what I had read then what I had uncovered was a finding more significant than simply the discovery of the first urban sociological study. What I had discovered was the first American school of sociology.

Not secure that I was the first person in more than one hundred years to draw this conclusion, I conducted a literature review search on the Atlanta University Study of the Negro Problems. To my surprise, since its inception in 1895 at Atlanta University and up to my literature search in 1999, there existed only two sociological analyses of the school led by Du Bois. The first was a 1957 article by Elliott Rudwick on the sociological significance of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, the moniker bestowed by me on scholars engaged in sociological inquiry at Atlanta University between 1895 and 1924, to the discipline.[2] Rudwick ultimately concluded that Du Bois’s sixteen year tenure at the institution was not sociologically relevant because it did not produce any noteworthy findings and, more importantly, because it was simply a vehicle for the promotion of his propaganda on race and race issues. The second article that I discovered proved to be more important. Shaun L. Gabbidon wrote a piece that attempted to fit the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory into Martin L. Bulmer’s construction of a “school” of academic research. Bulmer’s notion of a school, the most developed to date, included nine criteria. Gabbidon concluded that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory did not qualify for “school status” because it failed to meet three of the nine. First, he argued that Du Bois never stated any theoretical perspective that he subsequently tested. Second, he argued that Du Bois did not collaborate with any prominent figures during his tenure at Atlanta University. Last, he proposed that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory did not incur strong philanthropic support and, thus, did not qualify for school status as defined by Bulmer. Convinced that Du Bois’s Atlanta Sociological Laboratory did qualify for school status, I thoroughly examined the volumes Atlanta University studies and applied Bulmer’s characteristics to the school.


Using the Master’s Tools

Bulmer’s first criterion for a school is that there be a central figure around which the sociological enterprise is organized. W. E. B. Du Bois was this central figure at the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, where his tenure as director of the Atlanta University Study of the Negro Problems lasted from 1897 to 1914. It is worth mentioning that a second, and failed, attempt to revive the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was tried upon his return to the institution between 1933 and 1944.

The second criterion for a school is that it must exist in a university setting and have direct contact with a student population. Atlanta University was the institution within which the research laboratory was housed. In fact, the department of sociology at Atlanta University was one of the earliest and most advanced units in the nation as it offered courses covering statistics, general sociological principles, social and economic conditions, and methods of reform in the emerging discipline of sociology. So advanced was it curriculum that Du Bois boasted, “we have arranged” at Atlanta University, “what amounts to two years of sociological work for the junior and senior college students.”[3]

The third criterion for a school mandates that there be interaction between those who work at the university and the general community in which the university is located. A little known aspect of Du Bois’s career is his grassroots civil rights activities as a faculty member at Atlanta University. Both he and department faculty participated in civil rights activities at the dawn of the twentieth century that both endangered their lives and the fiscal stability of the institution. Du Bois addressed his civil rights record in autobiography when he noted that “I joined with the Negro leaders of Georgia in efforts to better local conditions; to stop discrimination in the distribution of school funds; and to keep the legislature from making further discrimination in railway travel.”[4]

A school must have as its key figure, per Bulmer’s fourth criterion, someone with a dominating personality (i.e. personal loyalty and admiration of colleagues and one who looks for talented collaborators). Without question Du Bois possessed a dominating personality, as evidenced by his critical assessment of the two studies conducted prior to his arrival that he regarded as not being scientifically relevant. Add to this his plan to overhaul the entire Atlanta research enterprise to fit his specific notion of sociological inquiry, and Du Bois’s dominating personality should be evident. Indeed, Dorothy Yancy noted the personal loyalty and admiration that he engendered from colleagues. According to Yancy “colleagues had warm memories [of Du Bois] and called him the perfect host.”[5] Additionally, Du Bois’s collaborative efforts with colleagues was noted in many of the volumes of the Atlanta University studies, where Du Bois pointed out that, “in addition to the publications we did something toward bringing together annually at Atlanta University persons interested in the problems of the South.  Among these were Charles William Eliott, Booker T. Washington, Frank Sanborn, Franz Boaz, Walter Wilcox.”[6] We can add Max Weber, Jane Addams, and a myriad of Black social scientists in the South to that list.

The fifth criterion of a school is that its leader possesses an intellectual vision and has a missionary drive. Du Bois’ intellectual vision for the Atlanta School included a plan for a one hundred year program of sociological studies on Blacks in the United States. The primary theme upon which this one hundred year program of research was to be based was ‘The Economic Development of the American Negro Slave.’ For Du Bois, “on this central thread all other subjects would have been strung.”[7]

The sixth criterion of a school mandates that there be intellectual exchanges between colleagues and graduate students (e.g., existence of seminars) and that the school must have an outlet for the publication of its scholarship. Evidence of intellectual exchanges is found via the attendance and participation of leading scholars of the era on the topics addressed at the annual conferences hosted by the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory between 1896 and 1924. Concerning intellectual exchanges with graduate students, the Atlanta University catalog of 1897 noted that the “graduate study of the social problems in the South by most approved scientific methods [was] carried on by the Atlanta Conference, composed of graduates of Atlanta, Fisk, and other institutions.”[8] The school published its scholarship in the twenty volumes of the Atlanta University Study of the Negro Problems between 1896 and 1917 by Atlanta University Press, which also published a variety of books, catalogues, and pamphlets.

The seventh criterion for a school indicates that it must have an adequate infrastructure that includes advances in research methods, institutional links, and strong philanthropic support.  Specifically, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the public dissemination of the limitations of its research; the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the use of insider researchers; and the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize method triangulation. Prior to the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, these practices were not a part of any collective sociological research program in the United States. Institutional links, the second component of this prerequisite, are found in the pages of the yearly studies where the cooperative efforts and activities of faculty and students from predominately Black and predominately White institutions as well as the United States Department of Labor that are listed. It is without question that the small all-Black school in Atlanta, Georgia could not accrue philanthropic gifts comparable to those received by the Rockefeller funded University of Chicago. However, given the racial climate of the era and the intense difficulty that Atlanta University experienced while attempting to obtain funding for many controversial monographs, the fact that Du Bois and his colleagues managed to publish twenty monographs and host almost thirty conferences during an almost thirty year span without the financial support enjoyed by institutions such as Chicago, denotes a significant level of philanthropic support.

The eighth criterion of a school is that it cannot last beyond the generation of its central figure. Du Bois was affiliated with the Atlanta University research program for sixteen of the twenty years for which studies were published. After his departure in 1914 his successors only managed to publish one original monograph and one edited volume of previously written articles on race.

The ninth, and final, criterion for a school is that it must be open to ideas and influences beyond its home discipline. The very fact that the school addressed ten separate topical issues – among them business, crime and deviance, education, and health – indicates its openness to interdisciplinarity. Werner J. Lange stated it best when he wrote: “The fact that these social scientific domains – now departmentally separated at most United States universities – constituted a single unit for Du Bois reflects the degree to which the young scholar valued and used a cross-disciplinary approach in his work.”[9]


Why Black People Tend to Shout

In the article “Using the Master’s Tools: Atlanta University and American Sociology, 1896-1924,” I showed that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory predated the Chicago School of Sociology and, thus, should be recognized as the first American school of sociology. I then began to question why this information was only coming out roughly one hundred years after the establishment of the southern-based research program. I offered five explanations for the school’s more than one hundred year invisibility: Academic obscurity; non-generalizable findings; unsophisticated and low quality research methods; omission of theory; and racism.

The first explanation for the sociological marginalization of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory is the notion that its scholarly offerings suffered from academic obscurity. Academic obscurity is the idea that the school remained relatively unknown for nearly one hundred years because very few, if any, sociologists were aware of its sociological accomplishments. This argument is rendered invalid when one examines the school’s twenty publications and discovers that most volumes include a list of the persons to whom reports were requested and delivered. Atlanta University publications records indicated that copies of the studies were sent to academic institutions and scholars, including graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard University (Massachusetts), The Catholic University (Washington, DC), Wellesley College (Massachusetts), Wooster University (Ohio), University of Texas, and to professors at various African-American and predominately White colleges and universities. Moreover, at least one report was sent to a high school in the state of North Carolina. Copies of publications were also delivered to organizations, publication outlets and prominent citizens including, but not limited to, the American Missionary Association, The New York Independent, McClure’s Magazine, the Northern Inter-Collegiate Oratorical League, Carroll D. Wright (United States Bureau of Labor), Professor Katharine Coman (Wellesley College), David J. Fuller (Brooklyn, New York), and Jane Porter Scott (Social Settlements Association). Additional evidence that the sociological accomplishments at Atlanta University were known to mainstream sociologists is captured in the writings of the prominent sociologist of the South, Howard W. Odum, who acknowledged the sociological significance of the Atlanta University studies in his book chronicling the history of the discipline and its major contributors up to 1950. But if college students, prominent citizens, government officials and at least one prominent scholar were aware of the accomplishments taking place at Atlanta University, how could the nation’s leading sociologists not have been aware? I argue that they were aware, but perpetuated the school’s invisibility because of racist attitudes towards Du Bois and his colleagues.

A second explanation for the school’s marginalization is derived from Rudwick’s 1957 critique of the school. According to Rudwick, the school was not worthy of note because it did not produce generalizable findings. It can be reasoned that because the primary subjects of its investigations were Black, Rudwick concluded that the findings were limited, sociologically negligible and not generalizable. For example, had he included the school’s 1897 study in his inquiry, he would have learned that a major finding of that investigation was the deleterious impact of the lack of ventilation in early twentieth century apartments – which was shown to contribute to high rates of tuberculosis and affected black tenants as well as whites. In other words, the study originated within the black community but had findings that were generalizable to other racial groups. Additionally, data that uncovered the fact that Whites and Blacks received disparate sentences within the criminal justice system even when having committed similar crimes was generalizable to the national black community. It is thus a misnomer to suggest that none of the studies of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory could be generalized beyond Blacks or within the Black community as well.

The third explanation for the sociological marginalization of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory is the idea that its methods of research were unsophisticated and of low quality. Rudwick examined only three of the twenty publications in order to arrive at this conclusion. But as discussed earlier, this school’s methodological advances include being the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the public dissemination of the limitations of its research; the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the use of insider researchers; and the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize method triangulation.

The fourth explanation for the school’s marginalization is the notion that it omitted theoretical analysis. Rudwick suggests the studies were lacking in systematic theory while Gabbidon argued that Du Bois never tested his theories. But if one defines a theory as a set of interrelated statements that attempt to explain, predict, or understand social events, and that can be replicated and are generalizable, then the resolutions offered in the conclusion of the Atlanta University Conference Publications, after being tested by interested social scientists, qualify as systematic theoretical constructions. Undoubtedly, the presentation of the theories of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory does not mirror that of traditional scholars. But are they rendered invalid merely because they do not conform to discipline standards? The answer to this question is a resounding, no!

The final, and most significant, explanation for the exclusion of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory from the sociological canon is racism. The discipline’s formative years occurred during a period when this nation’s treatment of its ‘second-class citizens’ can best be described as deplorable. Theories of scientific racism, embraced by both the medical and social science communities, promoted the idea that Blacks were biologically, intellectually and physically inferior to Whites. It is this type of thinking that may have made the notion of a successful program of sociological research that could be equal to or greater than that of the well-funded institutions of the American north and east coast anathema for those holding on to notions of ‘Negro inferiority.’ Indeed, Blacks were not the only group whose identity was used to negate their accomplishments. According to Barbara Peters, since “the founding of the first academic department at the University of Chicago . . . [S]ociology has had a history of silencing voices that were different from the dominant White, male, bourgeois, and ‘moral’ voices of the founding ‘fathers’.”[10] Even among the ‘Founding Fathers’ of American sociology and its leading publications, the scholarly products of Du Bois and Atlanta University were considered less important. According to Elliott Rudwick:

“Despite the depth of Du Bois’s commitment to sociology, he was in the main ignored by the elite in the profession. It is interesting that Albion Small, a founder of America’s first department of sociology in 1892, of the American Journal of Sociology in 1895, and of the American Sociological Society a decade later, had, like Du Bois, been trained in Germany by Schmoller … In spite of this similarity in professional background and although the American Journal of Sociology . . . devoted many pages to social welfare problems, Small clearly considered Du Bois’s work of minor importance.”[11]

Rudwick adds in his critique of the American Journal of Sociology and the profession that:

“Books by known racists were reviewed and often warmly praised. In 1906, Thomas Nelson Page’s The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem was glowingly lauded by Charles Ellwood, who had been Small’s graduate student … In another review, Ellwood gratuitously commented, “it is only through the full recognition that the average Negro is still a savage child of nature that the North and South can be brought to unite in work to uplift the race.”[12]

Charles Lemert provides a concluding statement on the impact of race on the marginalization of Du Bois’s book Souls of Black Folk that is similarly applicable to his accomplishments at Atlanta University. According to Lemert:

“There should be no particular reason to believe that sociology, however excellent its values or pure its motives, has escaped the powerful influence of Western culture. This, then, is the likely more sufficient explanation for the exclusion of Du Bois, and Souls, from the sociological cannon. He, and others in his position, having been veiled, were not clearly visible.”[13]

Despite evidence that the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory comprised the first American school of sociology, made multiple contributions to the discipline in areas including research methods, and conducted a number of seminal studies in the discipline, it remains largely excluded in contemporary sociology textbooks even today.


How to Infuse the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory into the Sociology Curriculum

After nearly twenty years of producing research on this school, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory remains largely ignored by most mainstream sociologists and excluded from textbooks. But this must not remain so. First, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory can be infused into the sociology curriculum by requiring a written paper assignment. The instructor could require students to complete a three to five page paper on the sociological accomplishments of the school. Specifically, they would be required to compare and contrast the information included in their course textbook with recommended readings about the school. Additionally, students would select a sociological perspective (conflict theory, functionalism, or symbolic interaction) to explain the marginalization of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. The second method of infusing the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory into the sociology curriculum would supplement required course readings with sample paragraphs from existing works on the school. The paragraphs should be consistent with standard textbook length offerings and should be provided to students by the instructors. The third method of curriculum change is to offer a (required) supplemental reading list. This strategy works best for instructors who do not use textbooks as it provides the best opportunity to expand the readings in a manner that best suits their teaching style and reflects advances in the discipline. The supplemental reading list would include relevant articles highlighting the achievements of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory vis-à-vis mainstream and traditional sociology. Last, instructors could infuse book or journal information into the course textbook. Some publishing companies are now allowing instructors to customize the information included in their textbook in such a manner as to insert previously published readings into their book. This option is invaluable as it affords instructors the ability to offset the failings of the originally constructed textbook in a manner that better suits their pedagogical needs. Taken altogether, these suggestions are only a starting point for the infusion of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory into the sociology curriculum but a step at providing a more holistic account of the major contributions to the discipline by African Americans.

For more than one hundred years, the contributions of the W. E. B. Du Bois-led Atlanta Sociological Laboratory to early American sociology have been largely ignored. Yet this school of sociology lasted more than twenty years and produced accomplishments that include the establishment of the first American school of sociology, the first program of urban sociological research, the first institutionalized program of ‘Sociology of the South’ research, the first American study on religion, the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the public dissemination of the limitations of its research, the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize the use of insider researchers, and the first sociological program in the nation to institutionalize method triangulation. Had these accomplishments been made by White sociologists at predominately White institutions it is without question that the discipline would be continuously singing their praises, ad nauseam, to this day. Because Du Bois and his collaborators were black, their accomplishments were rendered negligible and ignored. The negation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory thus leads one to believe that Du Bois was correct when he pondered on the exclusion of Blacks from mainstream acceptance within academia:

“So far as the American world of science and letters is concerned, we never ‘belonged’; we remained unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes, and after all, what had Negroes to do with America or science?”[14]

References and Footnotes

  1. Wright II, Earl. 2016. The First American School of Sociology: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.| Wright, Earl, II. 2006. “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta University Studies on the Negro, Revisited.” Journal of African American Studies 9(4):3–17 | Wright, Earl, II. 2002a. “Using the Master’s Tools: Atlanta University and American Sociology, 1896–1924.” Sociological Spectrum 22(1):15–39. | Wright, Earl, II. 2002b. “Why Black People Tend to Shout! An Earnest Attempt to Explain the Sociological Negation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory despite Its Possible Unpleasantness.” Sociological Spectrum 22(3):325–61. | Wright, Earl, II. 2002c. “The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, 1896–1924: A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology.” Western Journal of Black Studies 26(3):165–74. See Wright 2002a or Wright 2016 for a complete analysis of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory’s status as the first American school of sociology.
  2. See Wright 2000, where the term ‘Atlanta Sociological Laboratory’ was coined.
  3. Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. [1903] 1978. “The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University” Pp. 61-64 in W. E. B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community, edited by Dan S. Green and Edwin Driver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 62-63.
  4. Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International. p. 219.
  5. Yancy, Dorothy C. 1978. “William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Atlanta Years: The Human Side—A Study Based Upon Oral Sources.” Journal of Negro History 63:59–67. pp. 63-64.
  6. Du Bois 1968, p. 219.
  7. Du Bois 1968, p. 217.
  8. Atlanta University. 1897. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Atlanta University (Incorporated 1867–Opened 1869). Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press. p. 13.
  9. Lange, Werner J. 1983. ‘‘W. E. B. Du Bois and the First Scientic Study of Afro-America.’’ Phylon 44:135– 46., p. 143.
  10. Peters, Barbara J. 1991. ‘‘Disparate Voices: The Magic Show of Sociology.’ American Sociologist 22:246– 60, pp. 248-249.
  11. Rudwick, Elliott M. 1974. ‘‘W. E. B. Du Bois as Sociologist.’’ Pp. 25–55 in Black Sociologists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by James E. Blackwell and Morris Janowitz. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. p. 47.
  12. Rudwick, p. 47.
  13. Lemert, Charles. 1994. ‘‘A Classic From the Other Side of the Veil: Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk.’’ The Sociological Quarterly 35(3):383–96. p. 388.
  14. Du Bois 1968, p. 228.