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American Negro Academy (ANA)

American Negro Academy (ANA)


The American Negro Academy (ANA), founded on March 5, 1897, in Washington, D.C., was the first national African-American learned society. Although American blacks had established numerous local literary and scholarly societies from the late 1820s on, the goals and membership of the American Negro Academy made it a distinct and original endeavor. The academy's constitution defined it as "an organization of authors, scholars, artists, and those distinguished in other walks of life, men of African descent, for the promotion of Letters, Science, and Art" (Moss, 1981, p. 1). The decision to exclude women was based on the belief that "literary and social matters do not mix."

Although the chief concerns of the ANA's founders were to strengthen the intellectual life of their racial community, improve the quality of black leadership, and ensure that henceforth arguments advanced by "cultured despisers" of their race were refuted, it was equally significant that the organization was established at a time when European Americans were creating hundreds of learned, professional, and ethnic historical societies. The academy's birth was an expression of this general movement among educated members of the American middle class.

From its establishment until its demise in 1928, the academy claimed as members some of the most important male leaders in the African-American community. Alexander Crummell, its first president, was an Episcopal clergyman who held an A.B. from Queen's College, Cambridge University. Other founders included Francis J. Grimké, a Presbyterian clergyman trained at Lincoln University and Princeton Theological Seminary; W. E. B. Du Bois, professor of economics and history at Atlanta University and later a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); William H. Crogman, professor of classics at Clark University in Atlanta; William S. Scarborough, a scholarly classicist who was on the faculty of Wilberforce University; and John W. Cromwell, a lawyer, politician, and former editor of the People's Advocate, a black newspaper published in Washington, D.C., from 1878 to 1884. Throughout its existence, the academy continued to attract a number of the most intellectually creative black men in the United States. Some of those associated with the organization who achieved their greatest prominence after the turn of the century were John Hope, president of Morehouse College and later of Atlanta University; Alain Locke, writer, critic, and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance; Carter G. Woodson, historian; and James Weldon Johnson, poet, writer, and civil rights leader.

Relatively speaking, only a handful of educated black men were ever members of the academy. There were several reasons for this: The ANA was a selective organization, to which entrance was controlled by the membership; its activities and goals appealed mainly to a small group of black men who sought to function as intellectuals and who believed that the results of their efforts were crucial to the development and defense of their racial group; it experienced continuous difficulties in realizing its goals; and it never enjoyed the support of Booker T. Washington, the powerful principal of Tuskegee Institute, who for over half the organization's life was the dominant figure in the African-American community. Washington was invited to become a founding member of the ANA and to attend the inaugural meeting in 1897, but he declined, pleading a busy schedule and prior commitments. The real reason for his absence and lack of involvement was his recognition that the major founders and early leaders of the academyespecially Crummellwere sharply critical of his educational theories, particularly his stress on industrial training as the best education for the majority of his race, and of his willingness to compromise with prominent white racists in both the South and the North.

Between 1897 and 1924, the ANA published twenty-two "Occasional Papers" on subjects related to the culture, history, religion, civil and social rights, and social institutions of African Americans. The process of choosing who would be invited to present papers at academy meetings and selecting which of the talks delivered would be printed as Occasional Papers was managed by the executive committee, a body composed of the president, first vice president, corresponding secretary, recording secretary, and treasurer. Although the quality of the papers varied, all of them illuminate the many ways in which, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, an important segment of the small community of educated American blacks attempted intellectually to defend their people, justify their own existence, and challenge ideas, habits, attitudes, and legal proscriptions that seemed to be locking their race permanently into an "inferior caste" (Moss, 1981, p. 2).

Throughout its existence, the ANA was preoccupied with survival. As a result, its officers and members were forced to put as much energy into keeping the organization alive as they did into conducting its programs. And yet the society survived for thirty-one years, functioning as a setting in which members and friends shared their intellectual and scholarly work with each other and engaged in critical reflection on it. Through annual meetings, Occasional Papers, exhibits, and the public interest they generated, the ANA was able to initiate dialogues in both the black and white communities that were important contributions to a growing discussion in the United States, Africa, and Europe about race and the relationship between blacks and whites; to introduce the concerns and opinions of educated blacks into quarters where previously they had been ignored or gone unnoticed; and to encourage the growing pride among African Americans in their culture and history.

The American Negro Academy was both a sustainer and a perpetuator of the black protest tradition in an age of accommodation and proscription. By functioning as a source of affirmation and encouragement for an important segment of the black intelligentsia and as a setting in which they could seek to understand the meaning of the African-American experience, it was a model for other and sometimes more successful black organizations founded after 1897 that engaged in similar work or attempted to realize goals that the ANA found unattainable. Perhaps most important, for its active members, the academy's various programs and activities and the interactions they promoted formed a dynamic process in which participants began to free themselves from the entanglements and confusions of ideas and theories that made them feel insecure about their own worth, ashamed of the history and condition of blacks, and doubtful of their race's future possibilities. By strengthening and adding to the intellectual autonomy and insight of its members, the academy helped to prepare them for more informed, honest dialogue with each other, with blacks in the United States and other parts of the world, and, when they would listen, with whites.

See also Crummell, Alexander; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Grimké, Francis James; Harlem Renaissance; Hope, John; Johnson, James Weldon; Locke, Alain Leroy; Washington, Booker T.; Woodson, Carter G.

Bibliography

Meier, August. Negro Thought in America, 18801915. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Moss, Alfred A., Jr. The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

alfred a. moss jr. (1996)

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