December 2018

Making Material Memories: Transformative Moments in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Archive

The more answers about Negro History Week I found in Du Bois’s papers and collections associated with his life and times, the more questions surfaced. These inquiries have pushed my research on Du Bois and Negro History Week into broader considerations of the mixed methodology he used in the production of black history, and the black radical internationalist framework of his historical imagination.

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

In W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1868-1963) posthumous autobiography, published in 1968, he ends the Postlude with an eloquent literary apostrophe about the act of narrating one’s own life and the art of making one’s legacy. “Let then the Dreams of the Dead rebuke the Blind who think that what is will be forever and teach them that what was worth living for must live again,” he wrote. “Teach us, Forever Dead, there is no Dream but Deed, there is no Deed but Memory.” Du Bois tells his readers that the study of the past requires thoughtful deliberation to put knowledge into practice. Furthermore, he poignantly describes the historian’s task of analysis and interpretation as a “deed” of memory.”

Image 1 WEB Du Bois 1930s Schomburg
W. E. B. Du Bois, ca. 1930s; photo credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

Most of Du Bois’s papers reside at UMass Amherst (in physical and digitized formats) and Fisk UniversityYale University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and a host of other institutions house smaller collections of Du Bois materials. The papers of those closest to Du Bois, for example his lawyer Bernard Jaffe, his second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, and his literary executor and comrade Herbert Aptheker, also hold dimensions of his life history. Equally revealing are the collections of Du Bois scholars David Levering Lewis and Gerald Horne as well as documentarian Louis Massiah. Sites of public memory such as the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, along with the W. E. B. Du Bois Centre in Ghana, archive aspects of his life as well.

Having spent the last decade researching and writing about Du Bois’s life and legacy, I’ve had the opportunity to work extensively in all of the aforementioned collections. One of my most exciting discoveries was to learn about Du Bois’s frequent visits in the 1930s and 1940s to Prairie View State College (now Prairie View A & M University) for Negro History Week events as part of his lecture circuit travels. This storyline inhabits the importance of local history and retextures understanding of his role as a popularizer of global black history.

On my first research trip in the fall of 2009 to work in the Du Bois Papers at UMass, I discovered that in the early 1940s he delivered several lectures at Prairie View State College. Du Bois always read from a prepared text, so there’s a long paper trail of speeches in his archive. As a Texas resident and long-time Houstonian, I live within a half-hour’s drive of Prairie View A & M, so this bit of local history stirred my curiosity. Du Bois and Texas? I was not at all surprised that he visited an HBCU; however, Texas had never figured into Du Bois scholarship up to that point. Furthermore, I had associated him primarily with Atlanta and New York City, the two places he spent the bulk of his adult life.

Image 2 Plight of the American Negro Speech Du Bois Papers UMass
W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Economic Plight of the American Negro,” Prairie View, Texas, January 1940; photo credit: W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, UMass Amherst Special Collections

I read the speeches, and found them interesting as artifacts of Du Bois’s global perspective on Pan-African solidarity, the struggle for racial equality at home and abroad, and the prospects for working-class unity during World War II. A handful of years before he delivered the Prairie View lectures, he had published Black Reconstruction in America, a Marxist analysis of the post-civil war era. So I read the speeches in the key of Du Bois’s increasingly materialist rendering of politics and history that defined his late career.

As my knowledge of Du Bois’s intellectual production increased—as I continued to delve further into his archive—I found What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas, a 7-page pamphlet he wrote in 1936 for the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition held in Dallas. The essay unfolded chronologically and thematically to emphasize contributions of black Texans to “American civilization,” evidence that the Lone Star State’s history provided further documentation that “the Negro is the central thread of American history.”[1] 

From the historical clues contained in the speeches and the pamphlet, I sensed there was more to learn about Du Bois’s relationship to Texas. Several fortuitous events, and large measures of serendipity, shaped the development of my research.

A turning point occurred in 2014 when archivists completed the digitization of the Du Bois Papers at UMass.[2] The digital collection contains over 100,000 items, and its keyword search capabilities makes it possible to connect discrete points of data, i.e., distinct documents in different folders and boxes, across the entire archive. Once I typed “Prairie View” and “Texas” into Credo—the UMass Amherst Special Collections archival search engine geared to the Du Bois Papers—the hundreds of documents that populated my search confirmed my hunch about Du Bois and Texas: within the archives there resided a larger story.

Tracking Prairie View through the archive, I discovered that the college’s president, W. R. Banks, and his wife, Glovina Virginia Perry Banks, were Atlanta University alumni who had once had Du Bois as a professor. Hundreds of letters they exchanged between the 1920s and early 1960s captured conversations about education, race, freedom, economics, and the day-to-day activities of everyday life. Other correspondence revealed plans and invitations to visit campus, deliver lectures, and consult with faculty and students.

From such evidence I pieced together that throughout the 1930s and 1940s Du Bois often visited Prairie View State College to speak during Negro History Week and otherwise give talks during his annual lecture tours. Travels through cities like Houston and Dallas and lecture stops at other HBCUs including Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University), Bishop College (now Paul Quinn College), Wiley College, and Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University), marked his trips through Texas. Establishing a rough timeline of Du Bois’s travels, I found numerous references to his Texas “pilgrimages,” as he called them, in his journalistic writings published in The Crisis, Amsterdam News, and Chicago Defender.  

More archival detective work followed.

As a 2013 Scholar-in-Residence at the African American Library at the Gregory School, I tracked Du Bois’s Houston visits through reports in the Houston Informer newspaper, especially his 1934 trip. The University Archives at Prairie View A & M disclosed more about his visits to Waller County during the 1930s and 1940s. I observed how W. R. Banks was a key figure in Du Bois’s attempts in the 1940s to resurrect his well-known early-20th-century Atlanta Studies, sociological analysis of different facets of black life. I read where campus newsletters announced his lectures, and found in the 1940 yearbook a photograph of Du Bois at a reception held in his honor. One day, University Archivist Phyllis Earles showed me the text of a 1935 speech Du Bois delivered at the annual Prairie View Educational Conference, “Outline of Report on Economic Condition of Negroes in the State of Texas.” I did not recognize the speech, and soon discovered that Prairie View held what is perhaps the only copy this this rare Du Bois lecture. With Phyllis’s blessing, I submitted the speech for publication. It later appeared in Phylon, a scholarly journal that Du Bois started in 1940 and edited until 1944.

Image 3 WEB Du Bois Schomburg
W. E. B. Du Bois; photo credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

To find an unnoticed, unpublished Du Bois document is a relatively rare occurrence; to edit and publish one is rarer still. To collaborate with Du Bois, so to speak, in this fashion is one of the greatest privileges of my academic career to date.

Research in other archival collections further expanded the documentary foundation of my work on Du Bois and the Lone Star State. From the W. R. Banks collection at the University of Texas, I found Du Bois’s reflection written for a 1961 Texas Southern University reception honoring Banks. He commented upon their five-decade friendship, and praised Banks’s efforts to expand African American education in Texas. Nearby at the Austin History Center, a 1944 brochure documented that Du Bois was one of several black intellectuals who spoke on African American culture at Samuel Huston College for a lecture series on the arts. The Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers contained letters he wrote from Prairie View in which he discussed among other things a 1947 lecture on Russia he delivered to an audience of 1000 people. And in the Herbert Aptheker Papers I found several printed programs from Du Bois’s Texas travels including visits to Bishop College and his Houston lecture in 1934.

Evidentiary fragments discovered across several archives provided individual pieces for the larger historical puzzle I was assembling. The deeds of memory were accumulating, and I remained excited to follow where they led.    

An abundance of references to Du Bois’s 1934 lectures indicated that his trip to Texas that year for Negro History Week was particularly well-documented. As I fleshed out the broader narrative, I turned to scholarship on the early-20th-century Black History movement, and the writings of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

Woodson’s annual report on Negro History Week in the Journal of Negro History for 1934 commented that Texas meetings showed “increasing appreciation” of black history. He reported that on his Houston visit Du Bois “was warmly received” and noted the growing engagement with black history in the greater metropolitan area.[3] Woodson’s assistant, the historian Lorenzo J. Greene, had canvassed the region for several years to distribute black history materials. In his diary, Greene noted a meeting with Glovina Banks at Prairie View, and recorded that “there is already a large interest here in Negro History. Used to have a program during the entire month of February. Negro History celebration now lasts for seventeen days . . . [the Banks’s have] many of our books here.”[4]

The assembly of material memories into a narrative shape is the laborious delight of the historian’s craft. The story of Du Bois, Texas, and Negro History Week I was able to create from within his archive and across other collections started with an observation, associating several clues, following historical intuition, and attaining familiarity with a particular subject gained after a decade of research, reading, and writing. It also depended on good fortune—the digitization of the Du Bois Papers in the midst of conducting research—and the good graces of archivists willing to share historical treasures. Research fellowships also facilitated archival excursions to map out Du Bois’s Texas story, including a 2018-2019 W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar Fellowship at UMass.

The more answers about Negro History Week I found in Du Bois’s papers and collections associated with his life and times, the more questions surfaced. These inquiries have pushed my research on Du Bois and Negro History Week into broader considerations of the mixed methodology he used in the production of black history, and the black radical internationalist framework of his historical imagination. Collectively, the deeds of memory I discovered within and across Du Bois’s material memories generated the satisfaction of intellectual revelation, ignited feelings of existential joy, and calibrated academic research with scholarly writing to produce transformative experiences in the archive.

SintierePhillip Luke Sinitiere is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018-19. He is also Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately African American school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies,his books on Du Bois include Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (University of Missouri Press, 2014) and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois (Northwestern University Press, 2019).


Funding that facilitated the research discoveries discussed herein came from the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) at Rice University, the African American Library at the Gregory School/Houston Public Library, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst. For these opportunities, I salute the entire Gregory School staff, Anthony Pinn and Maya Reine (Rice University), and Whitney Battle-Baptiste (UMass Amherst). I appreciate Keisha Blain’s helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. In conceptualizing this essay, I thank Aaron Rubinstein, Lauren Louise Anderson, John Wilsey, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Rob Cox, Rich Benson, and Lisa McLeod for fruitful conversations about archival research in the Du Bois Papers.

[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, “What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas,” in Contributions by W. E. B. Du Bois in Government Publications and Proceedings, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1980), 353-365.

[2] For more on this development, and its role in the larger field of Du Bois studies, see Phillip Luke Sinitiere, “‘A Legacy of Scholarship and Struggle’: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Life After Death,” in Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois, ed., Phillip Luke Sinitiere (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019).

[3] Carter G. Woodson, “Negro History Week—the Ninth Year,” Journal of Negro History 19/2 (April 1934): 111-117.

[4] On Greene’s devotion to black history and his trip to Texas, see Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 141-164 and Lorenzo J. Greene, Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson: A Diary, 1930-1933, ed. Arvarh E. Strickland (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996), 119-147.

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