Wesley, Charles Harris
Wesley, Charles Harris
December 2, 1891
August 16, 1987
Historian, educator, and minister Charles H. Wesley was a native of Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended public schools. He received a B.A. from Fisk University in 1911, an M.A. from Yale University in 1913, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1925. He was the third black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, following W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson.
Upon graduation Wesley accepted a position on the faculty of Howard University, where he served from 1913 to 1942 (leaving briefly, from 1920–1921, to attend Harvard). Wesley rose from the position of instructor to that of professor, then to chair of the history department and finally to dean of the graduate school. In 1930 he was the first black historian to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he spent the following year in England studying slave emancipation in the British Empire.
Wesley was an ordained minister and a presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal church (1914–1937). He was also general president of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha (1931–1946), about which he wrote The History of Alpha Phi Alpha (1953). He was one of Carter G. Woodson's principal associates at the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), with which he was involved from 1916 to 1987. Wesley worked with Woodson on several important research projects. He was also cofounder of the Association of Social Science Teachers at Negro Colleges (1936).
Wesley's Negro Labor in the United States, 1850–1925 (1927) grew out of his dissertation at Harvard and was the first comprehensive historical study of black workers. It is still one of the basic works on the subject, and was pioneering in its use of economic and social analysis for black history. The Collapse of the Confederacy (1937) established Wesley's expertise in southern history, and his scholarly articles on subjects ranging from black abolitionists to the diplomatic history of Haiti and Liberia helped to legitimize and popularize the emerging discipline of black history. Wesley also wrote several other histories of black organizations and their leaders, such as Richard Allen, Apostle of Freedom (1935), History of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (1955), and Prince Hall: Life and Legacy (1977).
Wesley was a vocal critic of the limited curriculum and paternalistic procedures at black colleges. In 1942 he was elected president of Wilberforce University in Ohio, an AME church-supported school. In the spring of 1947 church trustees, led by his former mentor Bishop Reverdy Ransom, dismissed Wesley. Student protests followed, and afterward an acrimonious legal battle between the university and the state of Ohio, which provided funds for the School of Education. The school was permanently split into two institutions, and Wesley became the first president of Wilberforce State College (later renamed Central State University). Wesley upgraded the faculty, integrated the student body, and introduced new programs such as African Studies.
During this period Wesley also served as president of the ASNLH (1950–1965), and when he retired as president of Central State University in 1965, he assumed the executive directorship of the association. He continued to write histories of African Americans, including Neglected History: Essays in Negro History by a College President (1965), In Freedom's Footsteps, From the African Background to the Civil War (1968), The Quest for Equality: From Civil War to Civil Rights (1968), and a new introduction for Woodson's treatise, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1969). In 1972 Wesley resigned his position as executive director of the ASNLH.
Wesley came out of retirement in 1974 to direct the new Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, serving until 1976. In 1979 Wesley, a widower of six years, married Dorothy B. Porter, a librarian and bibliographer. He continued to write in his later years, publishing his last book, The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service, in 1984 at the age of ninety-two. He died in Washington, D.C., three years later.
See also Association for the Study of African American Life and History; Historians/Historiography; Howard University; Wilberforce University; Woodson, Carter G.
Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. Black History and Historical Profession, 1915–1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
francille rusan wilson (1996)