Monroe Work

views updated May 29 2018

Monroe Work

Monroe Work (1866-1945), a sociologist, published the Negro Year Book and an extensive bibliography on African Americans. He was also active in the anti-lynching campaign and the Negro Health Week movement.

Monroe Nathan Work was born to ex-slaves on August 15, 1866, in Iredell County, North Carolina. Shortly after his birth Work's family moved to Cairo, Illinois, where his father worked as a tenant farmer. Like many freedmen, the Works wanted to own land, and in the 1870s they preempted a 160-acre farm in Summer County, Kansas. Work remained there—completing his elementary education at a nearby school located in a church— until 1889 when his mother died and his father went to live with one of the married children.

At the age of 23 Work was finally free to pursue the education he had long desired. He entered a bi-racial high school in Arkansas City, working to support himself while a student. After graduating third in his class, Work tried teaching, preaching, and homesteading before resuming his education at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Instead of becoming a minister, however, Work became a sociologist, transferring to the Sociology Department of the University of Chicago in 1898.

From an early age Work apparently wanted to contribute to the welfare of his fellow African Americans, and in Chicago he found his proper role. African Americans at that time faced crippling and bewildering discrimination, ranging from segregation to disfranchisement to lynching and based on irrational white fear and hatred of African Americans. Work once noted, "In the end facts will help eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding, for facts are the truth and the truth shall set us free." While still a student he began seeking the facts. His paper on Negro crime in Chicago later became the first article by an African American to be published in the American Journal of Sociology. Under the influence of Professor William I. Thomas, Work also developed an interest in Africa, and his articles on African culture marked him as one of the pioneer scholars on that subject.

After receiving his Masters degree on June 16, 1903, Work accepted a faculty position at Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah. He went to the Deep South where the largest number of African Americans experienced the most discrimination and where he could continue a research relationship with W. E. B. DuBois through the Atlanta University Studies. DuBois was the foremost African American intellectual of the age and a militant leader who opposed Booker T. Washington's moderate, accommodationist program of African American advancement.

While in Savannah Work joined DuBois' anti-Washington Niagara Movement and founded the Savannah Men's Sunday Club, an African American organization dedicated to protest and to the improvement of living conditions among poor African Americans. Following an unsuccessful, disillusioning campaign to prevent passage of Savannah's first segregation law in 1906, Work accepted a job at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1908. He thus became the only person closely affiliated with both of the main rivals for African American leadership in that period.

Overcoming numerous obstacles, Work founded and developed the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee, where he compiled and catalogued a wide assortment of materials on the African American experience. In 1912 these data provided the basis for the first edition of the Negro Year Book, an annual and then periodic publication that was a permanent record of current events, an encyclopedia of historical and sociological facts, a directory of persons and organizations, and a bibliographic guide to the subjects discussed. Published by the respected Tuskegee Institute, the book became an accepted source of facts for newspapers, schools, and other organizations in both the North and South—as did Work's biannual lynching reports, established that same year.

In 1928 Work fulfilled another long-term dream with the publication of A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America. Containing 17,000 references in 74 classified chapters, the book was the first comprehensive bibliography of its kind and has been widely used by scholars and laymen.

Although the bulk of his efforts provided factual tools for others in the battle against discrimination, Work also became actively involved in interracial organizations and the movements to prevent lynching and to improve African American health. When he died on May 2, 1945, he was survived by his wife, Florence Hendrickson Work, and had published his bibliography, 66 lynching reports, nine editions of the Negro Year Book, and more than 70 articles. Leading an undramatic, scholarly life, Work was a quiet crusader who helped lay the foundation for the later civil rights movement.

Further Reading

Although Work is included in many biographical directories and is the subject of two journal articles, the only biography is Linda O. McMurry's Recorder of the Black Experience, A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work (1985).

Additional Sources

McMurry, Linda O., Recorder of the Black experience: a biography of Monroe Nathan Work, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. □

Work, Monroe Nathan

views updated May 21 2018

Work, Monroe Nathan

August 15, 1866
May 2, 1945

Soon after the birth of Monroe Work, a sociologist, in rural Tredell County, North Carolina, Work's parents joined many other former slaves migrating westward and acquired a farm under the provisions of the Homestead Act. Remaining to help his aging parents, Work began secondary school when he was twenty-three. In 1903 he received his master of arts degree in sociology from the University of Chicago and accepted a teaching job at Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah, Georgia, where he met and married Florence E. Henderson.

Appalled by the plight of the city's African Americans, in 1905 he took two actions to improve conditions. He attended the conference called by W. E. B. Du Bois that established the Niagara Movement and founded the Savannah Men's Sunday Club, which combined protest, lobbying, and petitioning with the functions of a lyceum and civic club. By means of a streetcar boycott, the group attempted, but finally failed, to prevent the enactment of the city's first segregation law in 1906.

In 1908 Booker T. Washington offered Work a position at Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama. After his alliance with Du Bois, Work seemed an unlikely candidate to accept a job from Washingtonthe nemesis of the Niagara Movement. By 1908, however, Work was disillusioned with the power of protest and the Niagara Movement was floundering. Work reassessed his talents. Dignified instead of dynamic, he was a quiet scholar and researcher rather than a leader. Believing prejudice was rooted in ignorance, Work had long been compiling "exact knowledge concerning the Negro." The resources and audience available at Tuskegee for his research proved irresistible.

Work utilized his Department of Records and Research to compile a daily record of the African-American experience from newspaper clippings, pamphlets, reports, and replies to letters of inquiry. In 1912 he began publishing the Negro Yearbook and the yearly Tuskegee Lynching Report to enlighten black and white newspaper editors, educators, and leaders, especially in the South. In 1927 Work published A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America, the first extensive, classified bibliography of its kind. In addition, he was one of the participants invited to the conference held at Howard University on November 7, 1931, to plan the proposed (but never completed) Encyclopedia of the Negro.

Work also remained an activist after leaving the Niagara Movement for Tuskegee. He worked to improve black health conditions, to eradicate lynching, and to improve race relations. A pivotal figure in the establishment of National Negro Health Week in 1914, he subsequently organized it for seventeen years. He also participated in the southern antilynching movement of the Atlanta-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. From those contacts he became involved in other interracial groups.

By the time of his death, Work had published over seventy articles and pamphlets, including pioneering studies of Africa's contributions to and its impact on African-American culture. In 1900 he was the first African American to publish an article in the American Journal of Sociology, and in 1929 he presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

See also Niagara Movement; Sociology; Tuskegee University


Guzman, Jessie P. "Monroe Nathan Work and His Contributions." Journal of Negro History 34 (1949): 428461.

McMurry, Linda O. "A Black Intellectual in the New South: Monroe Nathan Work." Phylon 41 (1980): 333344.

McMurry, Linda O. Recorder of the Black Experience: A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

linda o. mcmurry (1996)

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