They "could never have too much of my work": Eric Williams and the Journal of Negro History, 1940-1945.

Author:Gaspar, David Barry

On 7 August 1939, Trinidad-born Eric Eustace Williams, just a few days short of his twenty-eighth birthday and fresh from magnificent academic triumphs at Oxford University, arrived in the United States to take up an appointment as Assistant Professor of Social and Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC, referred to by some as the "Negro Oxford." This essay draws attention to the opening of a new chapter in the unfolding career of the man who would rise to great prominence as scholar, politician, and Caribbean leader, focusing particularly on his publications in the Journal of Negro History (JNH) during the 1940s. (1)

At Oxford University "on the banks of the Isis" River, Williams completed both undergraduate and graduate studies (1932-1938), writing a doctoral dissertation on "The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery." Unable to find a suitable academic position in England, he looked to Japan, Siam, and India before the opportunity at Howard University came in 1939, "as the war clouds began to gather more ominously." In the period between receiving the doctorate degree in December 1938 and his departure for the U.S., Williams also did additional research on the subject of his doctoral thesis while living in London and traveled through parts of western Europe educating himself. At this time, however, he was also greatly preoccupied with finding a publisher for his thesis. In England, according to Williams in his autobiography, Warburg, "Britain's most revolutionary publisher ... who would publish all of Stalin and Trotsky," would not accept his work because of its bold and iconoclastic argument that ran counter "to the British tradition" that stressed humanitarian rather than economic reasons for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (2) Williams argued forcefully on the side of economic causation, but he did not altogether discount the supportive role of humanitarianism.

When Williams arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 1939, he was eager to find a publisher for his manuscript into which he had poured a great deal of work, and to begin building an academic career at Howard. This was an important start for him, representing indeed another step toward achieving the professional goal of becoming a teacher, first set and shaped by many influences in Trinidad before he left for Oxford University in 1932 having won the island scholarship. "I was determined to be a teacher;" Williams wrote, and this choice was a significant departure from the usual studies in law or medicine to which previous island scholars gravitated and which Williams' father hoped his son might also choose. (3) That early decision and his strong academic ability help explain his great success at Oxford as a student, and at Howard University as a professor during the 1940s when his first professional publications began to appear.

Howard University in 1939 was the leading black institution of higher learning in the U.S. Williams embraced the opportunity to work among an impressive group of scholars who were devoted more than simply professionally to the advancement of people of African descent everywhere. Their internationalism in regard to the 'Negro question' meant that Williams could make a valuable contribution in his teaching, research, and writing about the Caribbean and the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism there, while helping to illuminate the situation in the U.S. and elsewhere. Among his older colleagues at Howard, Williams benefited from contact with several "men of some distinction in their own right." Writing about this, Williams mentioned Ralph J. Bunche, who "had made some reputation for himself both in the external and the domestic field"; Abe Harris, "the economist with a special interest in Thorstein Veblen"; E. Franklin Frazier, "the sociologist, his massive knowledge of the American Negro fortified by his contact with Brazil"; Rayford Logan, "the historian ... specialist on Haiti and a known Negro nationalist with a special interest in Africa generally"; Sterling Brown, "in literature, with at least as good a national reputation as the others"; and William Hastie, "dean of the Law School" who had a strong interest in Caribbean affairs. "But the senior colleague who maintained the closest relations with me," Williams wrote, was Alain Locke, "the professor of philosophy" and an "old Oxford man himself.... With his direct contacts with such people as Eleanor Roosevelt and Adolf Berle, Locke was by no means a man to be despised." (4) There were, of course, other prominent and rising black scholars, teachers, and intellectuals at Howard when Williams taught there.

Another eminent and influential black American who was not on Howard's faculty at the time, but whose work would serve Williams well was Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950). Rising above difficult circumstances early in life, Woodson, who was "the second black American (after Du Bois) to receive a doctorate in history" at Harvard University, had taught at Howard briefly (1919-1920). In the fall and winter of 1915-1916, at the age of forty years, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and launched the Journal of Negro History in January. He created "Negro History Week" in 1926. According to August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Woodson's "twin goals" with these pioneering projects were to build black pride and erode white prejudice by working toward the alleviation of the deplorable political, social, and economic circumstances of Africans and African Americans. These early endeavors and his writings soon situated Woodson "at the confluence of the rising interest in the race's past among the black intelligentsia that would flower during the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and the appearance of that small cohort of blacks numbered in the ranks of the newly professionalized scientific historians." Although "he created the ASNLH, established a learned journal, sponsored pioneering research, and had an influential role in encouraging the development of a whole generation of black scholars," Woodson did not live to see the full fruits of his monumental labor emerge from the foundations he had laid. Fully dedicated to the daunting challenges before him, Woodson took great pride in the mission of the JNH to inquire into and to advance the interests of people of African descent in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. (5)

In launching the JNH Woodson faced many difficulties, but he understood that this important enterprise should not be delayed, and he solved the problem of contribution of articles to the first issue by writing all of the four articles himself, "signing the names of friends to three of them, and borrowing on his life insurance to pay the printer." The global concerns and coverage of the JNH are evident from its beginning. In an evaluation of the journal during its first twenty years written in 1935, Rayford W. Logan, then at Atlanta University, wrote that "only those who have studied The Journal of Negro History since its inception have any idea of the universal, encyclopedic scope of its contents." (6) The range of work of historical significance published in the JNH justified its expansive title.

At Oxford University during his student days (if not before), Williams was already somewhat familiar with the JNH and the work of black American scholars and other promoters of the cause of people of African descent, including Rayford W. Logan, Mary Church Terrell, Charles H. Wesley, A. A. Taylor, Monroe N. Work, Luther Porter Jackson, Frank W. Pitman, Frank J. Klingberg, Zora Neale Hurston, William M. Brewer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorenzo Greene, E. Franklin Frazier, W. R. Riddell, Ben N. Azikwe, Lorenzo Dow Turner, Ralph J. Bunche, Melville J. Herskovits, William Leo Hansberry, and Herbert Aptheker. By 1939 a few white scholars had published articles in the journal, including Frank W. Pitman, whose notable five-part article on plantation slavery in 18th-century British West Indies appeared in 1926 while Eric Williams was still a young student in Trinidad. On his arrival at Howard, Williams was eager to establish contact with Pitman of Pomona College in California, one of two leading U.S. scholars "on the history of the British West Indies prior to emancipation." The other scholar was Lowell J. Ragatz of George Washington University in Washington, DC. Both scholars supported Williams' scholarly endeavors. (7)

Important articles besides Pitman's about the Caribbean territories, of course, also appeared in the JNH by 1939, written by such scholars as Leila Amos Pendleton, E. E. Brown, G. W. Brown, C. S. S. Higham, W. R. Riddell, Rayford W. Logan, Charles H. Wesley, Melville J. Herskovits, W. Westergaard, and F. J. Klingberg. An article by Klingberg about the Mico Charity schools of the British West Indies after emancipation in 1834 appeared in the July 1939 issue of the JNH just before Williams arrived in the U.S. Lowell J. Ragatz, whose work on the political economy of the British West...

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