• E-Books
  • Office of Scholarly Publishing
  • Latest Catalogs
  • Books for Courses
  • Exhibits Listing
  • View Cart

Quick Browse

320 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 15 illus., 2 tables, notes, bibl., index

$49.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2678-2

$18.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5343-7

Published: Spring 2002

 Add Cloth to cart
 Add Paper to cart
 View cart

Confronting the Veil
Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919-1941

by Jonathan Scott Holloway

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

The Second Amenia Conference and Black Intellectual Genealogy: Changing Faiths in Labor Politics, Social Science, and Race Leadership

Surely there shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the Veil and set the prisoned free. Not for me—I shall die in my bonds—but for fresh young souls who have not known the night and waken to the morning; a morning when men ask of the workman, not "Is he white?" but "Can he work?" When men ask artists, not "Are they black?" but "Do they know?" Some morning this may be, long, long years to come. But now there wails, on that dark shore within the Veil, the same deep voice, Thou Shalt Forego! —W. E. B. Du Bois
In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois created a metaphor to describe the systematic separation of the races. At the symbolic level, "the Veil" did more than speak to the simple fact of racial segregation, it was its own commentary on the nature of the segregation. But even as the veil worked to segregate, it was also translucent and, as such, it gave blacks the "gift" of seeing white America while simultaneously remaining invisible to white America. As often as not, this gift was a curse. Du Bois was convinced, however, that the veil could be lifted; and he was equally convinced that black intellectuals were those most suited for the task.

Although Du Bois looms as a critical figure in the history that follows, he is not the central character. Rather, this book presents a history of Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche—three "fresh young souls" who, though all too familiar with "night" and too experienced in America's racial ways to "waken to the morning," still strove to confront the veil that rendered workers and artists black or white. Teaching at Howard University from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, Harris, Frazier, and Bunche were pioneering social scientists and worked steadily, if in different ways, to reorient America's obsession with the Negro problem away from an answer based upon racial solutions toward one grounded in class dynamics. Their intense economic determinism struck some of their colleagues and many of the next generation of intellectuals as quixotic, but in the interwar era the three consistently attracted an audience for their ideas. Harris and Frazier, in particular, produced leading scholarship, and Bunche became an icon for the possibilities afforded by American liberalism. Harris was the most important black economist of his generation, Frazier was an influential, if at times controversial, sociologist from the start of his career until his death, and Bunche, eventually the most well known and influential of the three, was the first black to receive a doctorate in political science.[1] The trio's social science scholarship, their political activism, and the role that the racial veil played in their lives comprise the heart of this study. The legacies they left help us understand the often contradictory and always complex demands placed upon and claimed by race leaders and intellectuals in the twentieth century.

This history also comments on how deeply intertwined race dynamics are with class dynamics. As the preface points out, race and class have always been interconnected. Their intersection, however, has been anything but stable. In fact, following World War I a bevy of new ideas emerged that demonstrated the extremely fluid nature of race and class interactions.

Domestic economic criticism of American democracy reached its high point in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1919, the Bolsheviks formed the Communist International (Comintern) with the explicit purpose of furthering a world revolution. On these shores, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) emerged as an amalgamation of smaller groups that split from the Socialist Party (SP). When it came to the issue of blacks, however, the earliest CPUSA line was remarkably like that of the SP and another early radical organization, the Industrial Workers of the World: racial discord was merely a manifestation of class inequality and antagonism.[2] Over the course of the 1920s, however, the CPUSA's approach to blacks changed. With an increasing acknowledgment that racial antipathy among white workers presented a significant obstacle to organizing blacks into unions, the CPUSA pursued a variety of strategies to improve the lives of black workers. The first major attempt came in 1925 in the form of the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), an organization openly sympathetic to black nationalism and geared to black labor.

Developed at least partly in response to the growing popularity of Marcus Garvey's black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the ANLC sought to appeal to blacks' collective culture and memory and make evident to the black masses that labor offered the best avenue to better days.[3] The bourgeois values of the black leadership class and the imperialist rhetoric of the UNIA held no value for ANLC activists. Unfortunately, there never were many ANLC activists to spread their word, and the ANLC folded in 1930.[4] Two years prior to the ANLC's demise, however, a significant shift occurred in the Communist Party's (CP) approach to black Americans.

This shift was in large measure advocated and then engineered in 1928 by Harry Haywood. A grandson of a former slave and a rising star in the CP, Haywood made racial issues a centerpiece of the CP agenda by convincing the Comintern to declare that blacks represented an oppressed nation within a nation. The so-called Black Belt thesis declared that blacks living in the Deep South constituted a systematically oppressed population and had a moral claim to their stolen labor and land. Furthermore, as members of a nation within a nation, southern blacks had the right to self-determination, even to the point that they could secede from the United States.[5]

This new attention to southern rural blacks went beyond a recognition of their roles as peasants in a capitalist order. Communists now openly acknowledged the unique cultural position and contribution of southern blacks. So, even before Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston began to hail the folk culture of the southern rural black, communists evinced a cultural and racial fascination with this American peasant class. Black sharecropper and farmer culture was an ideal rebuttal to an oppressive and capitalist national culture. The Black Belt thesis, then, brought race and a type of cultural nationalism to the fore and wed it to the more traditional communist class thesis.[6]

As James Smethurst points out, communists' fascination with and glorification of southern black culture came at the expense of northern urban black culture. This laboring population was, in effect, told that their culture—which, in truth, essentially migrated with them from the South in the preceding decades—did not matter and that the best way they could fight the capitalist bosses was to integrate with white workers. Going into the 1930s, then, the CPUSA race line embraced a strange mix of integration, labor politics, and cultural exceptionalism.[7] However, it was the Black Belt thesis—the idea that there was an authentic black culture and that it was oppositional by its very nature—that captured the imagination of the CPUSA rank and file. Race and class may have been in a fluid exchange, but race and a racial essentialism were finding increased favor among communists.

For much of the late 1920s and through the 1930s, Harris, Frazier, and Bunche took a position that came very close to the early CPUSA idea that racial antagonism was a manifestation of economic forces. Maintaining this position at this time meant that they were swimming against the popular progressive tide that embraced the Black Belt thesis. This evolution in radical thought—from an unadorned class thesis to one where a romanticized notion of racial and cultural authenticity threatened to overwhelm economic analyses—made it more difficult for Harris, Frazier, and Bunche to challenge America's orthodoxy that declared race mattered more than anything else. Complicating matters further is that although the race/class intersection was in a constant state of flux, "race" and "class" still had concrete meanings in people's minds. As a result, Harris's, Frazier's, and Bunche's class-driven ideas often ran afoul of racial codes of conduct. Different forms of racialized expectations and plain and simple racism handicapped the reception of their ideas from the start—even among populations who seemed eager to cross racial lines in search of economic justice. When these scholars interacted with political movements, fellow radical thinkers, and institutions in Washington, D.C., and beyond, they were constantly reminded of others' absolute commitment to a racial world interpreted via racial politics. If, for some, class analyses of American society were a critical step in the march toward true democratic social progress and justice, doctrinaire race thinking always stood ready to hobble that effort.

The Second Amenia Conference
In the late spring of 1933 the final list had been drawn up and Joel E. Spingarn, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), mailed the invitations to those whom the leadership of the NAACP felt were the "young leaders, or potential leaders of the race." The thirty-three individuals who accepted the invitation were to confer for three days in late August at "Troutbeck," Spingarn's estate in Amenia, New York, to discuss with "perfect freedom and without publicity the present situation of the Negro race."[8]

The twenty-two men and eleven women who comprised this next generation of race leaders were attorneys, educators, university and betterment organization administrators, and intellectuals. They were college educated and many possessed graduate and professional degrees as well. Even without the recognition afforded them by the NAACP invitation, these were people who, if they so desired, had ready access to a comfortable middle-class existence. A random sampling yields the following individuals and careers: Marion Cuthbert served as secretary for the Leadership Division of the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA); Emmett Dorsey taught political science at Howard University; Louis Redding and Edward Lovett practiced law in Delaware and Washington, D.C., respectively; Harry Greene directed the School of Education at West Virginia State College; Elmer Carter edited the National Urban League's (NUL) journal Opportunity; Mabel Byrd worked at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA of Washington, D.C.; Frances Williams served as secretary of the Laboratory Division of the NAACP's National Board; Charles Houston occupied the dean's chair at the Howard Law School; and Ira DeA. Reid directed research for the NUL.[9] Joining this group were the three scholars whose work and activism form the nucleus of this study, economist Abram Harris, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, and political scientist Ralph Bunche.

The events that unfolded at this conference made clear that the foundations of problems previously construed as racial were now being examined for their class roots. That this approach was deliberately considered by an organization whose leadership was middle class and increasingly mainstream underscores its popularity. Furthermore, that Harris, Frazier, and Bunche emerged as leaders of this conference demonstrates their commitment to an economic understanding of racial conflict and their willingness to take a lead amongst their peers to propose class-based solutions generated by social science scholarship.

This was not the first time that Spingarn had invited black leaders to his estate. In 1916, he convened the "First Amenia Conference" hoping that the attendees could unite and formulate a collective plan of action regarding blacks' social and political conditions.[10] The announced purpose and the timing of this conference were very deliberate. Booker T. Washington, the famed "Wizard of Tuskegee" and the most influential black leader in America, had died only one year earlier, and thus the opportunity was available to forge a bond between southern race leaders and the northern-dominated NAACP. While some of the gathering's unity was cosmetic, there was a general sense that the conference resolutions "closed the era of Booker T. Washington and pointed hopefully toward cooperation in the years to come."[11]

Seventeen years later Spingarn demonstrated the same appreciation for timing. Already occupying the bottom of the wage and social scales, black Americans were particularly hard hit by the financial devastation of the Great Depression. The economic malaise of these years only exacerbated an attenuated decline in the quality of black life since the first conference. A handful of examples underscores blacks' crisis.

Blacks were leaving the rural South in record numbers, exhausted from the hard toil of sharecropping and tenant farming, the abiding political and social repression, the physical and psychological terror of the lynch mob, and the denial of economic opportunity. Between 1914 and 1916, a labor depression, the scourge of the boll weevil, and floods simply added to the long list of accumulating reasons for blacks to try life in the North.[12] Blacks' problems did not disappear with this move, however. Most importantly, the migration to northern cities put further burdens on an already strained labor and housing environment. In East St. Louis in 1917, no fewer than forty blacks died at the hands of white workers who were on strike at an aluminum factory. During the "Red Summer" of 1919, blacks fell victim to whites in twenty-five race riots, most famously in Chicago where housing tensions made for a tinderbox of anger.[13] In 1921, somewhere between 300 and 3,000 blacks died in Tulsa when white mobs, angry over economic competition, ransacked the black business district, destroying some 1,500 homes and buildings in the process.[14]

Politically, things were little better. Through the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literary qualifications, white registrars of voters regularly disenfranchised southern blacks. In places like Mississippi, for example, less than one-half of one percent of eligible black men were registered to vote.[15] The revival of the Ku Klux Klan and its explosive growth in the 1920s directly and indirectly limited black political participation. As John Kirby points out, the Klan was so powerful by 1924 that the National Democratic Convention failed in its attempt to curtail its influence. Calvin Coolidge, running on the Republican ticket, refused to comment on the problems raised by the Klan until he was in the White House. Even then, Coolidge made no effort to curtail the Klan's violence toward blacks. Collectively, the Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations worried little about the state of black political affairs.[16]

The crash of 1929 eliminated whatever economic advances some blacks might have been able to make. Black and white unemployment skyrocketed, and the welfare rolls blossomed. Blacks found times particularly tough as job shortages and racism combined. "No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job," became a rallying cry for southern whites. Even in such major centers as Atlanta, 65 percent of employable blacks needed public assistance.[17] Herbert Hoover's belief in volunteerism and faith that the economic downturn was part of a larger cycle that would correct itself in time meant that federal government did little at first to address the depression. By the time Hoover realized the scope of the financial catastrophe, it was too late to fix it. Hoover's inability to solve the country's fiscal woes allowed Franklin Roosevelt to sweep into office with his promise of a "New Deal."[18]

The group of young men and women Spingarn brought together at Amenia in 1933, however, concluded that there was no guarantee that Roosevelt's New Deal program would alleviate the country's plight, much less blacks' troubles. Given these circumstances, this was a group that was prepared to consider new sociopolitical approaches to seemingly intractable social and economic dilemmas.[19]

As a result, the goal of the Second Amenia Conference was markedly different from that of the first. This time, Spingarn was not searching for a new and united leadership regarding only racial issues. Spingarn was aware that many blacks were dissatisfied with the very organization he had helped establish and now led. The NAACP, many believed, had focused too much on political liberties and civil rights and had proved unable to develop any plan to eliminate black poverty and unemployment.[20] Even for those who supported the NAACP's civil rights tactics, there was a growing sense that it was losing ground to organizations that linked civil rights reform to class-oriented strategies. The Communist Party and the International Labor Defense, for example, had won the respect of many blacks for immediately defending the so-called Scottsboro Boys—nine black youths who, in 1931, were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama and then were sentenced either to life in prison or death—while the NAACP lagged behind, worried that its bourgeois image would be stained by supporting possible rapists.

It was becoming evident to the NAACP, then, that blacks' concerns about civil rights were being eclipsed by an increasingly desperate search for economic justice. So, as stated in the memorandum sent to those invited to the conference, Spingarn sought answers not only to the ongoing Negro problem but also to the question of economic security. Spingarn wanted his guests to tell the "young, educated American Negro" what to do in regard to "occupation and income, racial organization, and interracial cooperation." Spingarn also hoped his guests would tell him and the other association leaders how white "friends and sympathizers" could participate in such a plan.[21]

Spingarn's memo is important in that it verbalizes a real concern for economic matters, thus articulating the possibility for an institutional shift in the NAACP's focus, and also because it points to a desire on behalf of the older, more established association leaders to hear from the next generation of "articulate" black Americans. This call to the "young leaders of the race" was significant. James Young argues persuasively that the generational difference between the NAACP leaders and the Second Amenia conferees is central to understanding the critique that the attendees made of the NAACP and like-minded organizations.

Young states that "the most important basis for the differences between the older and the younger generations is the fact that the older men were 'race men.'"[22] "Race men," according to Young, were those leaders like James Weldon Johnson and Walter White who came of age during the era of scientific racism, embraced nineteenth-century middle-class values, and maintained a deep faith in the curative powers of liberalism. Nothing was more important to these established blacks than their role as race spokesmen. Representing the race mattered more to them than their careers and captured their almost undivided attention. Public spokesmen, regardless of profession, these race men rarely strayed onto topics that did not relate directly to racial matters.[23]

The same could not be said for the people these race men and their white counterparts invited to the Second Amenia Conference. For example, while the race men and the attendees all struggled through the early years of the depression, the new economic realities affected the worldview of the younger set in a different fashion. Unlike the race men, the younger generation found it much easier to walk away from the race-based, gradualist strategies supported by groups like the NAACP and the NUL. Shut out at the national level by the Republican and Democratic Parties and meeting resistance from organizations like the American Federation of Labor, these younger blacks turned their attention and increasingly declared their open allegiance to alternative political parties and organizations. Whether it be Cyril Briggs's African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), Marcus Garvey's UNIA, Father Divine's evangelical Peace Mission movement, or the CP, the range of black political and social options was expanding.

Despite the breadth of political and social philosophies amongst these organizations, it was evident that this was an era when conceiving the world in economic terms was intellectually fashionable. When the ABB was founded in 1919, it articulated a program that was equal parts black nationalism and class radicalism. Beginning as a "revolutionary nationalist organization," the ABB quickly developed close ties to the CPUSA. The UNIA's vision of a new Africa for black Americans appealed to broad sections of the black community. Even though the romantic possibilities of Garvey's rhetoric overwhelmed any other facet of the UNIA, it is important to remember that the organization was, at its foundation, a capitalist venture.[24] Although Father Divine tried to keep his interracial movement removed from 1920s political and social activism, he nonetheless paid keen attention to economic opportunities and made the best of them. When one got past Divine's millennial sensibilities, one found an extremely efficient economic cooperative system.[25] The CP, of course, was committed to economically focused political theories that called for the equitable redistribution of society's wealth. Its inconsistent attention to and theories regarding blacks occasionally made it the era's most welcoming political home to blacks. Ultimately, the political project did not matter—race was now openly linked to class consciousness.

Confronting the Veil | Home

© 2016 The University of North Carolina Press
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
How to Order | Make a Gift | Privacy