American Negro Academy
American Negro Academy
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 beginning in the late 1820s, 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.” 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 arguments advanced by “cultured despisers” of their race would henceforth be 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, a 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, a 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 some 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, the president of Morehouse College and later of Atlanta University; Alain Locke, a writer, critic, and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance; Carter G. Woodson, a historian; and James Weldon Johnson, a 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. First, the ANA was a selective organization, and entrance was controlled by the membership. Second, 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. Third, it experienced continuous difficulties in realizing its goals. Finally, the organization never enjoyed the support of Booker T. Washington, the powerful principal of Tuskegee Institute, who for more than 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 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, however, was his recognition that the major founders and early leaders of the academy (especially Crummell) were sharply critical of his educational theories, particularly his stress on industrial training as the best education for the majority of blacks. They were also at odds with 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 the selection of which of the talks 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 the ideas, habits, attitudes, and legal proscriptions that seemed to be locking their race permanently into an “inferior caste.”
The Occasional Papers represent the ANA’s strongest efforts to refute white supremacist ideology and actions on a scholarly level. Kelly Miller’s review of a white statistician’s published arguments that Negroes were degenerate and on the verge of extinction (Occasional Paper Number 1, 1897) presented a forceful counterargument. The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro Intellect (Number 3, 1898), by Alexander Crummell, identified European Americans’ hostility to black intellectual achievement as an expression of white racism that had appeared simultaneously with the arrival of the first Africans in the English colonies. Published in 1899, Theophilus G. Steward’s How the Black St. Domingo Legion Saved the Patriot Army in the Siege of Savannah, 1779 (Number5)wasareminderofthe contribution of black soldiers to the creation of the United States and their valor. In various ways all of the subsequent Occasional Papers challenged racism and its intellectual and practical justifications. Among the most forthright, cogent, and incisive were John L. Love’s Disfranchisement of the Negro (1899) and The Potentiality of the Negro Vote, North and West (1905); Lafayette M. Hershaw’s Peonage (1915); John W. Cromwell’s The Challenge of the Disfranchised: A Plea for the Enforcement of the 15th Amendment (1924); and the numerous published papers by Archibald H. Grimké, especially Right on the Scaffold, or the Martyrs of 1822 (1901), The Meaning and Need to Reduce Southern Representation (1905), The Ballotless Victims of One-Party Government (1915), The Sex Question and Race Segregation (1916), and The Shame of America or the Negro’s Case against the Republic (1924).
Grimké’s The Sex Question and Race Segregation demonstrates the willingness of ANA members to engage a controversial topic and offer a forceful analysis. His central argument was that as long as whites ruled Negroes, both the oppressors and the oppressed would experience “moral deterioration.” For southern blacks and whites, Grimké noted, this process had begun in 1619, when the first cargo of African slaves arrived, and it had led, inevitably, to a “double moral standard” for white men and black women in the South. The consequences of this moral breakdown were reflected in the region’s inability to fairly or effectively regulate sexual conduct between males of the dominant race and females of the subordinate race. This moral paralysis stemmed from southern white society’s unwillingness to place restraints on white males by providing protection for black women, or to demand that white males accept responsibility for the consequences of their sexual relations with black women. Grimké used blunt language to make absolutely clear his certainty that sexual contacts between black women and white men were shaped and dominated by the predatory and exploitative tendencies of white men.
This situation, Grimké pointed out, was offensive and disturbing to black men, for it was a constant reminder of their powerlessness. They could not protect black women from the aggressions of white males, nor did they have similar access to white women. It also stimulated black men to imitate, within their own racial community, the worst sexual behavior of their white counterparts. Grimké also attacked southern white women for their efforts to reform the men of their race through activities that had the effect of further degrading the legal and social standing of their black sisters.
The ANA’s publication of occasional papers reflected the organization’s determination to challenge white supremacist ideology and actions by including black intellectuals in scholarly and public discourse about matters of consequence at a time when most European Americans refused to give serious attention to the ideas and opinions of educated African Americans. In these papers, the ANA made available to the American public thoughtful, perceptive, provocative essays on important subjects relating to history, politics, and race relations written by selected members of the organization.
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. There was continual concern over issues such as poor member participation, the high rate of dues delinquency, and the lack of public interest in the association’s yearly meetings. At annual meetings, officers and members searched for solutions to these problems. The failure of such efforts increased the frustrations of committed members. In addition, there was the discouraging reality of how few of the academy’s goals were being realized. The projected full membership of fifty was never attained; hopes that the society would become a strong influence on educated blacks—especially those in education and politics—were not realized; efforts by the ANA to combat racist ideas propagated by whites received little attention from either the white or black community; and when the organization entered the twentieth year of its existence, in 1917, it still lacked a journal. The irregular publication of the Occasional Papers remained its only printed offering.
From 1919 to 1928, the fortunes of the American Negro Academy declined further. Officers and members sought to strengthen the association by attempting to enrich the programs at annual meetings, expand membership, and rewrite the group’s constitution. Some efforts were more successful than others, but none succeeded in transforming the academy into a major intellectual force in the African-American community or the American community at large. By 1921 the leading members of the black intellectual community had lost interest in the organization, most judging it to be either in unstoppable decline or a failure. With the exception of Alaine Locke, who accepted ANA membership as a courtesy to older black friends trying to keep the society alive, the few willing to be inducted into the organization during the 1920s were neither intellectuals nor scholars, nor were they involved directly in such important developments in the black community as the Marcus Garvey movement or the New Negro movement. Locke’s position as a distinguished academic, and his role as one of the major spokespersons and interpreters of the “New Negro’s” artistic and cultural “awakening” made him unique among those who remained active in the ANA.
Between 1920 and 1928 the academy experienced a steady loss of nominal members—many of whom were inactive anyway—through attrition and death. A considerable number joined “mainstream” learned societies that had a predominantly white membership. This was especially true of those who were academics. Others, including some who had been among the ANA’s most active members, accelerated their involvement in the work of the NAACP and the National Urban League. It did not help ensure a future for the ANA so that Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and for a time a member of the ANA, concluded that the society had outlived its usefulness. With great success, he encouraged educated blacks to invest in his organization and ignore the ANA.
Many of the ANA’s problems, and some of its failures, were related to the unresolved tension between two of its goals: a commitment to honor men of intellectual achievement and promote their writings, and a commitment to honor and affirm men whose careers were deemed to be positive models of racial leadership. Because Crummell and the ANA’s other founding members had combined both functions in their careers, they built this double commitment into the organization’s criteria for membership. In his inaugural address, Crummell spoke for most of the persons present, as well as many who would later become members of the academy, when he stressed the inseparable link between scholarly work and public service, declaring that true scholars were also “reformers” and “philanthropists.”
In 1897 this was a widely held perspective in the black community, where many educated blacks viewed themselves (just as they were viewed by the majority of their race) as being under a moral obligation not only to make a contribution in the fields for which they were trained, but also to serve their race in the broadest way possible. The fact that many white Americans had a similar conception of the responsibilities of intellectuals served to reinforce black commitment to this understanding. However, at the very time the academy was launched, this understanding was being challenged in both the black and white communities by societal and attitudinal changes that were steadily producing more sharply delimited definitions of occupational roles, particularly in the professions. After 1897, these forces would become even stronger, eventually displacing older conceptions of the intellectual’s role. This development, which strongly influenced the self-concept of many black intellectuals, especially those educated after 1900, accentuated the problems created for the academy by tensions that existed between its stated goals.
The ANA’s failure to clarify the relationship between these two goals had a major impact in the area of membership, both in regard to the type of men who were elected and to what they were able and willing to do to support the organization. As a result, from the time it was founded, the academy had a built-in problem in regard to its criteria for membership, one that would become all the more troublesome because the nature of the problem would be unclear for some time. Indeed, during the first eighteen to twenty years of the group’s existence, no one analyzed the problem carefully enough to get at the heart of the difficulty.
Although on paper it was a society of scholars, the academy elected a large number of members who were only marginally intellectual. These men respected scholarship and the life of the mind, but their work and interests were neither scholarly nor intellectual. At the same time, the organization included other members who were engaged personally in the production of ideas and research, either because they valued such activities per se or as a means of furthering the goals of the ANA. The continuous disappointments the organization experienced as it sought unsuccessfully to secure the regular payment of dues, to increase member attendance at annual meetings, and to persuade certain members to prepare and deliver papers at annual meetings were—not solely, but to a large extent—related to this unresolved tension between differing goals that led to the election of many persons who were unable, unwilling, and uninterested in being working members of a learned society.
Throughout its existence, to some of its members the ANA was an honorary society rather than a working group. Many of those elected as members treated their induction, and that of others, as if it were similar to being elected to Phi Beta Kappa or the Royal Geographic Society, rather than as being admitted to a working group such as the American Academy of Political and Social Science or the Society of American Historians. Although this problem affected the society negatively from its earliest days, no member identified it or offered a solution until Carter G. Woodson did in 1921. When the members of the organization rejected the reforms proposed by Woodson and chose to continue to function as before, Woodson decided he was through with the ANA. This refusal to endorse Woodson’s reforms had a direct bearing on the ANA’s growing difficulties thereafter, and on its subsequent collapse. Intellectually productive members continued to become inactive, and those who had already done so found their decision reinforced. To black intellectuals who were not members, especially younger ones, the rejection of Woodson’s reforms was a clear indication that the majority of the society’s members were unwilling to permit changes that would transform the ANA into an organization whose central activity was to generate and publicize scholarship that challenged white supremacist ideology and actions.
The failure to resolve the tension between intellectual activity and racial leadership had another negative consequence. With the membership criteria unchanged, marginal intellectuals continued to be drawn into the ANA, and eventually they constituted the majority of members. After 1921, as older members who were productive scholars and intellectuals withdrew, died, or became more involved in other organizations and activities, marginal intellectuals were elected to positions of leadership. These officers were detached from the scholarly and intellectual tradition embodied by the ANA’s founders, and they were out of touch with the most creative black intellectuals and scholars of the middle and late 1920s. In their choice of programs and selection of new members, they were influenced strongly by the society’s honorific tradition. However, because the ANA was essentially unknown in the larger black community, there was no legitimate basis for considering membership in it to be an honor.
The 1920s, the decade of the “New Negro,” was a time of crisis for the ANA. During this decade, the organization was forced to come to terms with the ineffectiveness of its efforts to function as the intellectual voice of the “Talented Tenth.” The fundamental reasons for this ineffectiveness were the society’s poverty, its lack of a broadly based and supportive audience in either the black or white community, and an unresolved tension in its criteria for membership that undercut its efforts to be a learned society and confused its public image. These were difficulties with a history as long as the existence of the society.
In the 1920s the ANA was confronted by a new problem that proved to be as insoluble and as destructive as any of the earlier ones. The “civilizationist” goals espoused by the academy were based on the belief of its founders that blacks, in order to progress as a race, had to gain the respect of whites. These leaders wanted to appropriate for themselves the most positive aspects of “the more advanced cultures” of Europe and the United States in order to become a political, economic, and cultural force in the world. But this view was at odds with the new mood of blacks, as expressed by their enthusiastic endorsement of the leadership and ideas of Marcus Garvey and embodied in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The tension between these two views, combined with its internal failures, would bring the existence of the ANA to an end.
Despite all the difficulties that led to the demise of the American Negro Academy in 1928, it survived for thirty-one years, functioning for much of its existence as a setting in which a significant number of its members and supporters shared their intellectual and scholarly work with each other and engaged in critical reflection on it. Through annual meetings, the Occasional Papers, exhibits, and the public interest these activities 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. The ANA introduced the concerns and opinions of educated blacks into a few places where they had previously been ignored or gone unnoticed, and it encouraged the growing pride among a small but influential group of educated African Americans, young and old, in their culture and history.
The ANA both sustained and perpetuated 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, the ANA was a model for other (and sometimes more successful) black organizations founded after 1897 that engaged in similar work or attempted to realize goals 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 and their supporters 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.
Moss, Alfred A., Jr. 1981. The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Alfred A. Moss Jr.