The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois: The Centrality of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

On January 24, 2020, the District of Columbia Sociological Society hosted a presentation by Dr. Aldon Morris at the American Sociological Association (ASA) headquarters. Below is an excerpted version of that presentation. Dr. Morris is Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and was elected 112th President of the ASA.

Today I discuss the originality and importance of the sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois and other black sociologists who further developed the Du Boisian intellectual agenda. I will then address the relationship between this “black” scholarship and the institutional settings from which it blossomed. That is, I will discuss the role that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) played in the development of Du Boisian sociology and the development of the new discipline of sociology during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Early White American Sociology

Before we can understand the non-hegemonic structure of Du Boisian sociology, it is necessary to present a brief analysis of early white American sociology that remained dominant for a hundred years. The major postulates of white American sociology argued: (1) All systems of domination—that is, class, race, gender, and empire—were generated and sustained by natural, even cosmic forces. (2) African Americans and people of color globally were inferior to western whites. Thus, the global system of racial stratification existed because of the biological and cultural inferiority of people of color. (3) Because White supremacy was a natural phenomenon, resistance by black people could not change it. Blacks, therefore, did not possess human agency. Indeed, their inferiority erased any possibility that black people could exercise human agency capable of transforming racial inequality. (4) More generally, white sociologists theorized human agency as an attribute of dominant whites. Thus, only the action of whites could decrease racial inequality.

As a result, the conceptualization of the race problem as the white man’s burden became prominent. (5) These postulates of white sociology were generated through armchair theorizing rather than empirical data. This type of scholarship Du Bois labeled “car window” sociology.

This dominant white sociology was rooted in social Darwinism; this sociology advanced intellectual justifications for America’s racial apartheid and European empires that colonized colored people worldwide. Intense racism, and the sociological consensus that black people were biologically inferior, went hand-in-hand.

The white sociologists who made this brand of sociology dominant were professors in elite white northern universities. Among these institutions were the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University. These professors were upwardly mobile middle-class white males who identified with white elites and shared their values upholding the racial, class and gender status quo (Deegan, 1988). They were not professors out to topple inequality or even ruffle the feathers of the social order.

America’s leading capitalists and philanthropists funded elite white universities. They provided lucrative funds for professor salaries and honorific prizes, released time from teaching, research funds, and graduate student funding. These patrons were interested in an “objective” sociology framed as objective because it rationalized class and racial inequalities. They were interested in theories that valorized capitalism as a superior social order and justified rampant social inequalities as natural and inevitable.

These captains of industry were not interested in universities and professors who attacked capitalism as a greedy human enterprise bent on exploiting others for profits. They were not interested in research demonstrating that race, class, and gender inequalities generated immense unnecessary suffering. They abhorred research that argued for working class solidarity and labor unions. To the contrary, these elites directed funds to those universities that promoted their interests. Moreover, the interests of capitalists and white male professors converged. White professors were interested in joining, or at least co-existing comfortably, with these elites. Thus, institutionally and intellectually, white professors fell in line with capitalists’ interests in exchange for attractive professorships. Their sociology was a top down enterprise in the service of rulers.

Insurgent Sociology

I now turn to the insurgent sociology developed by the black sociologist, W. E. B. Du Bois (Morris, 2015). In contrast to conservative white sociology, Du Bois developed an emancipatory scientific sociology. First, Du Bois’ sociology theorized that modernity was a product of the African slave trade, centuries of slavery, and colonialism. These oppressive systems generated exploitable labor forces and raw materials, enabling western elites to build capitalist empires. Therefore, human beings, for the deliberate purpose of exploitation, constructed these systems of oppression. Du Bois, like his contemporaries Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, and his predecessor Karl Marx, was an analyst of modernity. However, Du Bois alone theorized the nuanced relationship among racism, colonialism, slavery, western empire building, and capitalist development made possible by these systems of human domination.

Second, Du Bois parted ways with white sociology that claimed global racial inequality emerged from natural and biological causes. Rather, Du Bois interrogated the global color line and its production of worldwide race stratification.

He concluded that whites, to ensure white supremacy across the globe, constructed such stratification. That color line, Du Bois famously predicted, was “the problem of the twentieth century” (Du Bois, 1903). That color line, he argued, structured the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in the Americas and the islands of the sea. Therefore, to understand modernity, its racial dynamics had to be centered in the analysis.

Third, Du Bois’ theory of the human self diverged from white theories of the self that emphasized communication and social interactions as benign processes engendering self-formation (Itzigsohn and Brown 2015). While Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness” stressed that the self emerged through social interactions and communication, his formulation went beyond the ideas of Charles Horton Cooley (1902) and George Herbert Mead (1934) by highlighting the role that racial dynamics and power relations played in shaping the self.

Fourth, in Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and Damnation of Women (1920), Du Bois like Ida B. Wells (1895) and Anna Julia Cooper (1892) analyzed class, race, and gender interactions thus anticipating intersectionality and critical race paradigms. White sociology paid no attention to how systems of domination interlocked and reproduced social inequality. Fifth, Du Bois constructed a bottom-up sociology that interrogated the social world from the perspective of the oppressed. He theorized that people’s social position shaped their lived experiences. Thus, his analysis proceeded from the perspective of the oppressed. His sociology of African Americans posed a profound question: How does it feel to be a problem?

From this perspective, Du Bois identified the sources of cultural creativity and organizational strength that enabled African Americans to produce movements that liberated themselves. Du Bois’ emancipatory sociology of African Americans demonstrated the following: (1) African Americans were equals to all other races because racial oppression, not biological traits, relegated Blacks to the bottom of the racial hierarchy. (2) There was no such thing as “black crime” because social conditions, and not racial traits, produced crime. (3) The black community usually portrayed as a homogeneous mass, was heterogeneous, consisting of various social classes and diverse experiences. (4) The black church was the central cultural and organizational institution of the black community.

Hence, long before the civil rights movement, Du Bois predicted that such a movement, based in the church, would arise to overthrow racial inequality. As early as 1903 in Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois predicted: “Someday the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of ten million souls shall sweep irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, and Right—is marked ‘For White People Only.’” Thus, Du Bois differed from white sociologists, who, on the eve of the civil rights movement, had no idea it was coming. Indeed, white sociologists clung to the belief that such a movement was an impossibility because they thought racial change only ensued from white agency.

Emancipatory Sociology

Du Bois emerged as the first American sociologist to articulate the agency of the oppressed. Moreover, Du Bois moved easily from the standpoint of the oppressed to that of the oppressor:

High in the tower, where I sit…, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none…intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk. Of them, I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage…I see these souls undressed and from the back and side” (Du Bois, 1920). Therefore, Du Bois created a scientifically rigorous and emancipatory sociology. In contrast to white dominant sociology of the period, Du Bois pioneered multi-methods by relying on both quantitative and qualitative methods to provide empirical evidence on which to base research findings (Wright, 2012). Indeed, two decades before the Chicago School conducted empirical studies, Du Bois’ Atlanta School executed numerous empirical studies analyzing rural and urban populations.

Finally, Du Bois rejected the claim that sociology should be an aloof detached science operating above social and political realities. Yet, Du Bois insisted that sociology embrace objectivity in its search for the truth. Nevertheless, for Du Bois, the purpose of those truths was to provide scientific guidance for efforts of liberation. In his struggles for black liberation, Du Bois made clear, “history and the other social sciences were to be my weapons, to be sharpened and applied by research and writing.” To be sure, Du Bois utilized sociology to engage in numerous political struggles to free humanity.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed: “It was never possible to know where the scholar, Du Bois, ended and the organizer, Du Bois began. The two qualities in him were a single, unified force” (King, 1968). For Du Bois, a dispassionate, aloof sociology was a dry as dust enterprise steeped in scientific and political irrelevances. Given its theoretical and empirical power, Du Bois’ intellectual agenda would become the touchstone of an insurgent black sociology embraced by pioneering black sociologists housed in black colleges and universities.

The Academy

The lived experiences of pioneering black sociologists were radically different from white sociologists. They were members of a despised race who encountered economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, racial segregation, lynching and daily insults. As Du Bois powerfully related, “I rode Jim Crow.” Even the college experience disempowered the personhood of black sociologists. Du Bois recalled, “When I entered college in 1885, I was supposed to learn there was a new reason for the degradation of the coloured people that was because they had inferior brains to whites” (Du Bois, 1958). Unlike upwardly mobile white sociologists eager to join white elites, black sociologists initiated struggles for survival and devised measures to protect their intellectual integrity. Consequently, when Du Bois encountered doctrines of black inferiority in college, he responded, “This I immediately challenged.

I knew by experience that my own brains and body were not inferior to the average of my white fellow students…I early, therefore, started on a personal life crusade to prove Negro equality and to induce Negroes to demand it.” Thus, for black sociologists to embrace the white academy and its ideas would mean personal and race suicide. Their only rational choice was to develop a critical approach to white academia and its racial science. For them, their crucial need was a sociology that critically dissected systems of domination, especially racial oppression. They sought a new sociology that functioned as a liberating weapon that imagined futuristic societies rooted in social structures and processes free of racial oppression. As Andrew Douglas contends, black sociologists required black colleges to serve as a locus of critique and to develop transcendent messages in opposition to white oppression.

The white academy cooperated in furthering black sociologists’ quest for a critical sociology by sorting them into academic institutions segregated by race. As Francille Wilson (2006) posited, black sociologists became the segregated scholars. For their undergraduate education, almost all black sociologists attended historically black colleges located in the south. Thus, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Du Bois, Richard R. Wright, Jr., Edmund Haynes, E. Franklin Frazier, Charles Johnson and Saint Clare Drake attended southern HBCUs.

If it were not for HBCUs including Fisk University, Atlanta University, Howard University, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Spelman University, Tougaloo College, Savanna State University, Virginia Union University, Saint Augustine’s University, and Morehouse College, there is a great likelihood that there would have been no black sociologists. Relative to white colleges, HBCUs were severely disadvantaged. Like the students who attended them, the larger society considered black colleges inferior and treated them as such. Because of racially restricted funds from state legislatures and philanthropists, black professors were perennial victims of low pay and overwork. Crucial facilities including libraries and labs suffered due to limited resources. Moreover, white elites monitored HBCU’s curricula, making sure subversive thoughts were expunged and that descendants of ex-slaves absorbed industrial education.

In fact, racially conservative white administrators and presidents ran most HBCUs well into the twentieth century. This white control led to many black student revolts that sought academic freedom and self-determination.

HBCUs suffered double jeopardy because their racial and regional statuses relegated them to the academic periphery outside the purview of prestigious and rich white universities of the north. Because of their position in the academic hinterlands, black scholars and their intellectual contributions suffered marginalization and even erasure. White mainstream sociologists proceeded as if they were the only viable intellectual game. As far as they were concerned, black scholars produced no ideas and intellectual agendas which white sociologists were bound to respect.

Yet, despite these daunting challenges, HBCUs educated the first generations of black sociologists, thanks to dedicated black and white teachers who embraced their educational mission as a sacred trust to lift the descendants of ex-slaves from ignorance and poverty. Black students possessed a dogged determination to attain education as attested to by one enrollee who declared, “tell the white people we are arising!” HBCUs prepared the first generations of black sociologists to attend white graduate departments of sociology and earn doctorates, enabling them to become professional sociologists. Though white departments alienated black sociologists with their theories of black inferiority and the righteousness of racial inequality, HBCUs had prepared them to persevere while keeping their eyes on the prize of earning advanced degrees necessary for those who would challenge white sociology.

Professional Black Sociologists

With degrees in hand, black sociologists settled in segregated academic positions as professional sociologists. Even though the American Sociological Association honors four great black sociologists—Du Bois, Frazier, Cox and Johnson—white sociologists know little about the institutions where they worked and the unique challenges they faced in those institutions.

All pioneering black sociologists shared the experience of never holding professorships in white universities because white supremacy would not permit such an outcome. Thus, they spent their entire careers in economically poor, isolated and oppressed HBCUs. To understand black sociologists’ careers in HBCUs, it is instructive to hear Du Bois’ account of the experience, for his entire academic career unfolded in two HBCUs.

He writes:

If young colored men receive scientific training almost their only opening lies in the Negro university of the South… the difficulty here… is that very few of these institutions have the facilities for research, nor can they grant teachers the time to devote to it. The young scientist who goes to such an institution is usually given a heavy load of teaching covering several branches of scientific work. If he can find any time for research, he not only has few facilities at his disposal at the institution, but he has a body of college students handicapped by restricted high school and elementary school training.

Few of them have seen laboratories before coming to college or have been used to rigorous scientific methods…Not only does the young Negro scientist find difficulty in pursuing scientific research in a Negro institution. He lives usually in an intellectual desert so far as the surrounding world is concerned. State libraries will lend books to colored students but usually the reader must be segregated in separate and often inconvenient rooms. [Black scholars] are placed in rooms by themselves… In general, the libraries, museums, laboratories and scientific collections in the South are either completely closed to Negro investigators or are only partially opened and on humiliating terms” (Du Bois, 1939).

Du Bois complained about how lack of resources severely handicapped his research and writing. He explained, “In the matter of scholarships and prizes, difficulties are often raised in the case of colored candidates. It is practically impossible for the Negro in the South even to enter…scholarships examinations.” Thus, we see that extensive racial discrimination experienced by HBCUs caused black sociologists to face staggering odds in their mission to produce an emancipatory sociology. Yet, the wonder of it all is that black sociologists triumphed against these staggering odds, building major sociology programs and producing theoretical and empirically based sociology that countered the racist narratives dominant in the white mainstream.


Aldon Morris at ASA headquarters, January 2020.
Source: Julie Anderson.


Sociological Wisdom

Hence, during the embryonic years of American sociology, pioneering black sociologists, led by Du Bois, constructed an emancipatory scientific sociology useful to those fighting for freedom around the globe.

That sociology placed at its center the examination of systems of human domination, the social structures and processes inhibiting human freedom. That sociology emphasized the empowering agency of the oppressed anchored in their culture and institutions, and the sociological wisdom that exploitative hierarchies are edifices made by real human beings and thus can be torn asunder by human agency. Also, at the center of insurgent black sociology was the requirement that scientific scholarship anchor itself in systematic study and rigorous reasoning.

I close by noting that despite overwhelming odds, pioneering black sociologists armed with a scientific desire to be free who were housed in generative HBCUs constructed an invaluable insurgent sociology. Much of it, though unacknowledged, has been incorporated in mainstream sociology, and constitutes its intellectual fountainhead. If an innovative insurgent scientific sociology could take root in the worst of times, amid terrorism of lynch mobs, attacks from elites within the community it sought to liberate, and discrimination from a racist society that withheld crucial resources, then maybe there is hope for all who work to produce knowledge for the purpose of understanding and transforming humanity (Morris, 2015).


Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Cooper, Anna Julia. 1892. A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South. Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House.
Deegan, Mary Jo. 1988. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
Du Bois. W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Company.
____ 1935. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
____ 1939. “The Negro Scientist.” The American Scholar Vol. 8, No. 3 (summer), pp. 309-320.
____ 1958. “The Early Beginnings of the Pan-African Movement.” W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collection and University Archive: University of Libraries. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Itzigsohn, Jose and Karida Brown. 2015. “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Phenomenology of Racialized Subjectivity”, Du Bois Review, 12, (2).
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1968. “Honoring Dr. Du Bois,” Speech delivered at Carnegie Hall in New York City, February 23, 1968.
Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Morris, Aldon. 2015. The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Oakland: University of California Press.
Wells, Ida B. 1895. A Record: Lynching in the United States. Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, Binder and Engraver.
Wilson, Francille, R. 2006. The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890–1950. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Wright, Earl, II. 2012, “Why, Where, and How to Infuse the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory into the Sociology Curriculum” Teaching Sociology, 40(3): 257-270. Sage Journal.

By Aldon Morris
President-Elect of the American Sociological Association

Return to May 2020 Issue

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *