Forgotten black scholar studied – and faced – structural racism in the 1940s

Forgotten black scholar studied – and faced – structural racism in the 1940s

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Allison Davis, circa 1965. Courtesy of the Davis family., CC BY-ND

When black historian Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926 (expanded to Black History Month in 1976), the prevailing sentiment was that black people had no history. They were little more than the hewers of wood and the drawers of water who, in their insistence upon even basic political rights, comprised an alarming “Negro problem.”

To combat such ignorance and prejudice, Woodson worked relentlessly to compile the rich history of black people. He especially liked to emphasize the role of exceptional African-Americans who made major contributions to American life. At the time, that was a radical idea.

W. Allison Davis (1902-1983) came of age in the generation after Woodson, but he was precisely the type of exceptional black person whom Woodson liked to uphold as evidence of black intelligence, civility and achievement.

Davis was an accomplished anthropologist and a trailblazer who was the first African-American to earn tenure at a predominantly white university – the University of Chicago in 1947. But Davis has faded from popular memory. In my book “The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought,” I make the case that he belongs within the pantheon of illustrious African-American – and simply, American – pioneers.

Allison Davis, forgotten pioneer

Allison and Elizabeth Davis in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1939. Courtesy of the Davis family., CC BY-ND

Allison Davis and his wife Elizabeth Stubbs Davis were among the first black anthropologists in the country. Bringing their experiences on the wrong side of the color line to mainstream social science, they made landmark contributions to their field, including “Deep South” (1941) and “Children of Bondage” (1940). Those books sold tens of thousands of copies in the middle decades of the 20th century; they advanced social theory by explaining how race and class functioned as interlocking systems of oppression; and they broke methodological ground in combining ethnography with psychological assessments rarely applied in those days.

Allison Davis’ extensive body of research also had a real impact on social policy. It influenced the proceedings in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), undergirded the success of the federal Head Start program and prompted school districts all across the country to revise or reject intelligence tests, which Davis had proven to be culturally biased. His “Social-Class Influences Upon Learning” (1948) made the most compelling case of that era that intelligence tests discriminated against lower-class people.

Despite the very real advances that Davis helped to inspire within American education in the 20th century, today those same accomplishments are at risk. American schools remain as racially segregated as ever due to poverty and discriminatory public policies. The investment in public education, especially compensatory programs such as Head Start, looks to further diminish amid the growing support for privatization, charter schools, and school vouchers – or, the Betsy “DeVos playbook,” as critics describe it. To understand the nature of these issues today, one must understand their history, which Davis’ career helps to illuminate.

Davis’ scholarly contributions are unquestionable when considered now, many decades later. But as the problems above suggest, it is no longer enough to simply celebrate exceptional African-American pioneers like Davis, or just give lip service to their ideas. The next step is confronting the circumstances that constrained their lives. This means viewing their experiences in relation to the structural racism that has shaped American life since colonial times.

Bending – not breaking – academic color line

Consider Davis’ landmark appointment to the University of Chicago. Fitting the story into a master narrative of racial progress obscures more than it reveals. While the appointment did represent the crossing of a racial boundary and heralded the many more barriers that would be challenged in the ensuing decades, a closer look at the story gives little reason to celebrate.

Like all black scholars of his time, Davis had to be twice as good to get half as much as his fellow white male scholars (and the situation was far worse for black women scholars like Elizabeth Stubbs Davis). Only through compiling a truly remarkable record of achievement, and only amid the national fervor to make the U.S. the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II, would Chicago even consider appointing Allison Davis. Even then, he only received a three-year contract on the condition that the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (JRF) agree to subsidize most of his salary.

Even with the subsidy, certain university faculty members, such as Georgia-born sociologist William Fielding Ogburn, actively opposed the appointment on racist grounds. So, too, did some trustees at the JRF, including the wealthy New Orleans philanthropist Edgar B. Stern, who attempted to sabotage the grant. Discounting Davis’ accomplishments and implying instead a sort of reverse racism, Stern asserted that “the purpose of this move is to have Davis join the Chicago Faculty, not in spite of the fact that he is a Negro but because he is a Negro.” Similarly myopic charges have been a staple of criticism against affirmative actions programs in more recent times.

The Quadrangle Club was where (white) faculty gathered at University of Chicago, midcentury. University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf2-06088, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The opposition ultimately failed to torpedo Davis’ appointment, but it did underscore the type of environment he would face at Chicago. As faculty members openly debated if he should even be allowed to instruct the university’s mainly white students, the administration barred him from the Quadrangle Club, where faculty regularly gathered and ate lunch. In a private letter to him, the university made clear that it “cannot assume responsibility for Mr. Davis’ personal happiness and his social treatment.”

As time wore on, such overt racism did begin to ebb, or at least confine itself to more private quarters. What never did subside, though, was an equally pernicious institutional racism that marginalized Davis’ accomplishments and rendered him professionally invisible.

As Davis collaborated with renowned white scholars at Chicago, his contributions were submerged under theirs – even when he was the first author and chief theorist of the work. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing for Commentary magazine in 1968, failed to count Davis among his list of black scholars who studied black poverty (even though Davis was among the most prolific black scholars in that area), he registered the depth of Davis’ marginalization. Such marginalization, which stemmed also from Davis’ interdisciplinary approach and iconoclasm, has caused even historians to lose track of him and his important career.

Davis was ensnared by the racism he studied

Even the most exceptional African-Americans have never been able to transcend the racial system that ensnares them. Davis’ appointment did not usher in a new era of integration of faculties at predominantly white universities. It took another three decades for substantial numbers of black scholars to begin receiving offers of full-time, tenure-track employment. And because of the vastly disproportionate rates of poverty, incarceration and municipal neglect plaguing the black community, jobs in higher education often continued – and still continue – to be out of reach.

Few people better understood, or more thoughtfully analyzed, these very realities than did Allison Davis. This was a man who laid bare the systems of race and class that govern American life. He understood that education needed to be a bulwark for democracy, not merely a ladder for individual social mobility. He embodied how to confront injustice with sustained, productive resistance. Moreover, this was a man who refused to surrender to despair, and who chose to dedicate his life to making the country a better, more equal, more democratic place.The Conversation

David Varel, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, University of Mississippi

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Bump in number of Clergywomen over two decades, at times equaling men

Bump in number of Clergywomen over two decades, at times equaling men

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, center, gives the benediction at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2014. The Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate pastor, left, and the Rev. Dawn M. Hand, executive pastor, right, joined her. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The share of women in the ranks of American clergy has doubled — and sometimes tripled — in some denominations over the last two decades, a new report shows.

“I was really surprised in a way, at how much progress there’s been in 20 years,” said the report’s author, Eileen Campbell-Reed, an associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn. “There’s kind of a circulating idea that, oh well, women in ministry has kind of plateaued and there really hasn’t been lot of growth. And that’s just not true.”

The two traditions with the highest percentages of women clergy were the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, according to the “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.,” released earlier this month. Fifty-seven percent of UUA clergy were women in 2017, while half of clergy in the UCC were female in 2015. In 1994, women constituted 30 percent of UUA clergy and 25 percent of UCC clergy.

Clergy Women in American Denominations. Graphic courtesy of

UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray credits the increase to a decision by her denomination’s General Assembly in 1970 to call for more women to serve in ministry and policymaking roles. She noted that as of this year, 60 percent of UUA clergy are women.

“All that work in the ’70s and ’80s made it possible for me, in the early 2000s, to come into ministry and be successful and lead thriving churches,” said Frederick-Gray, “and now be elected as the first female, first woman minister elected to the UUA presidency.”

Campbell-Reed and a research assistant gathered clergywomen statistics that had not been collected across 15 denominations for two decades.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, who co-authored the 1998 book “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” welcomed the new report as a way to start closing the gap in the research.

“While the experiences of women and the evolution of church life and leadership have changed dramatically over the past two decades, there have been no comprehensive studies on women and church leadership,” she said.

Reached between recent convocation events at Andover Newton Seminary, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a retired UCC minister, said the report’s findings were reflected around her.

“I was sort of looking around and seeing so many women and remembering that in my years in seminary in the ’60s how few of us there were,” said Crabtree, a trustee and alumna of the theological school. “So it’s definitely a sea change in terms of women’s ordination.”

Campbell-Reed’s research found a tripling of percentages of clergywomen in the Assemblies of God, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America between 1994 and 2017

But Campbell-Reed also found that clergywomen — with the exception of Unitarian Universalists — continue to lag behind clergymen in leading their churches. In the UCC, for example, female and male clergy are equal in number, but only 38 percent of UCC pastors are women.

Instead, many clergywomen — as well as clergymen — serve in ministerial roles other than that of pastor, including chaplains, nonprofit staffers and professors.

Paula Nesbitt, president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, said other researchers have long observed “the persistent clergy gender gap in attainment and compensation.”

For women of color, especially, significant gaps remain, and for women in some conservative churches, ordination is not an option.

Campbell-Reed noted that clergywomen of color “remain a distinct minority” in most mainline denominations. Those who have risen to leadership in the top echelons of their religious groups, she said, have done so after long years of service.

“Some of them are also being recognized for their contributions and their work, like any other person who’s got longevity and wisdom, by being elected as bishops in their various communions,” she said of denominations such as the United Methodist Church and the ELCA.

Women’s Leadership by Denomination. Graphic courtesy of

Campbell-Reed also pointed out the role of women who serve churches despite being barred from pastoral positions in congregations of the country’s two largest denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church.

Former Southern Baptist women like herself have joined the pastoral staffs of breakaway groups such as the Alliance of Baptists, which have women pastoring 40 percent of their congregations. And Catholic women constitute 80 percent of lay ecclesial ministers, who “are running the church on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Patricia Mei Yin Chang, another co-author of “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” said the new statistics prompt questions about the meaning behind them, such as changing attitudes of congregations or decreases in male clergy.

“Those are two really different causes and they may differ across denominations,” she said.

Campbell-Reed, whose 20-page report concludes with two pages of questions for seminaries, churches, researchers and theologians, said she thinks the answers about the often-difficult job hunt for clergywomen relate to sexism.

“Just because more women enter into jobs in the church or are ordained does not mean that the problems of sexism have gone away,” she said. “At times, the bias is more implicit but no less real.”

But some women are reaching “tall-steeple” pulpits — leadership in prominent churches — instead of being relegated to struggling congregations, often in denominations on the decline.

Frederick-Gray said her denomination, which she said is working on race equality as well as gender equality, is seeing greater opportunities for women to preach in its largest churches. Of the 41 largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association, 20 are served by women senior ministers.

Women’s leadership, Frederick-Gray said, is necessary at a time of decline for many religions.

“The decline is not the responsibility of women,” she said. “But maybe we will be the hope for the future.”

Florida’s culture clash pits Gillum against Trump voters

Florida’s culture clash pits Gillum against Trump voters

Video Courtesy of CNN

President Donald Trump’s loyalists here at Florida’s premier retirement community fear Andrew Gillum.

It has nothing to do with his race, they insist, when asked about the 39-year-old Democrat who could become the state’s first African-American governor. Instead, The Villages’ deeply conservative residents are convinced a Gillum victory would trigger an era of high crime, higher taxes and moral failing.

“He’ll kill everything that’s good about Florida,” says Talmadge Strickland, a 66-year-old retired firefighter wearing a “Trump 2020” baseball cap at a rally for Gillum’s opponent. “He will hurt us; he will physically hurt us with his socialist mentality.”

In an era defined by deep political partisanship, there’s perhaps no state where the divide runs deeper than Florida, which is in the grip of a fierce culture clash over guns, race, climate change and the president. Gillum sits at the center of the melee, his campaign a proxy for the larger fight between Democrats and President Donald Trump’s GOP.

Gillum’s fate is inexorably linked to fellow Democrats whose success could determine control of Congress. That’s especially true for three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who could benefit from Gillum’s appeal among young voters and minorities.

As early voting begins in Florida this week, that link is tenuous.

“New voters and infrequent voters are everything to us winning,” Gillum told The Associated Press when asked about his impact on Nelson’s race. “I think they will vote for both of us, and that will be to his benefit.”

Young people and minorities are traditionally among the least reliable voters, particularly in midterm elections. Meanwhile, white voters in place like The Villages are lining up behind his opponent, former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis.

The electorate in Florida this year is especially unpredictable due to an unusual collision of events: a massive hurricane, the nation’s deadliest high school shooting and Gillum’s historic candidacy.

DeSantis has benefited from Trump’s occasional backing on social media, including after the debate. And Gillum is scheduled to campaign this week alongside former Vice President Joe Biden and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In the interview, he noted he’s been in touch with former President Barack Obama, who may campaign on his behalf.

Gillum acknowledged some Florida voters might oppose him because of his race, but insisted “that voter is not the majority of the people in our state.”

During Sunday night’s CNN debate, he accused his Republican opponent of fanning racial animus ever since DeSantis first warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.

“The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all,” Gillum charged. “He has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. The truth is, you know what, I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”

Meanwhile, a small, but significant portion of the state’s Republican base remains consumed by recovery efforts almost two weeks after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle. The secretary of state extended early voting hours, but both sides expect a drop in turnout across the heavily-Republican region as residents struggle without electricity and lodging in many cases.

Nelson’s challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, has yet to resume any campaign activities since the storm made landfall.

The state’s other trauma — a school shooting earlier this year that left 17 students and staff dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — looms over the races. Backed by the fortune of Democratic billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, Florida’s young people are fighting to be heard.

Those rallying behind Gillum in recent days include 16-year-old Sari Kaufman, a Parkland survivor who spent Sunday canvassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

In an interview, Kaufman suggested young people are more excited about Gillum than Nelson, particularly because of Gillum’s status as a younger candidate running statewide for the first time.

“If he is successful and other candidates are successful, it will mean that my fellow classmates didn’t die in vain,” Kaufman said.

African-American leaders are also working to reverse their community’s typical drop-off in midterm elections. NAACP President Derrick Johnson said his organization is “microfocused” on boosting black turnout this fall. A statewide canvassing effort is underway across Florida, where organizers hope to bump black turnout by at least 5 percent from four years ago.

It was easy to find evidence of Gillum’s influence among so-called low-propensity voters in recent days, as activists from more than a half dozen competing groups scoured the state to ensure they cast ballots.

Anne Fazio, a 19-year-old Jacksonville student, was among thousands of people contacted at home over the weekend by the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity’s massive door-knocking push. Standing at her front door, she didn’t hesitate when a conservative volunteer asked whether she was going to vote.

“I’m voting for Andrew Gillum,” Fazio said, praising his support for gun control and expanding Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents.

Asked by the AP whether she would support Nelson, she said: “I think I’ll probably vote for him — he’s a Democrat, right?”

The Republican DeSantis is making little effort to expand his coalition as he embraces Trump and his policies in a state the president carried by 1 point.

DeSantis vowed during Sunday’s debate to work closely with the Trump administration, while noting that Gillum has called for Trump’s impeachment. “You’ve got to be able to work with the administration,” DeSantis declared.

He also dismissed Parkland students’ calls for stronger efforts to reduce gun violence when asked about his opposition to modest gun control measures passed by Florida’s Republican-led legislature in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

DeSantis said local law enforcement and school officials “let them down” by not acting sooner to detain the shooter and address his mental health issues sooner.

Meanwhile, a flood of money is shaping the Florida elections.

Since the beginning of September alone, each side has dumped more than $44 million into television advertising for the governor’s race. While that may be the most in the country, it’s a fraction of the spending in Florida’s Senate contest, according to political operatives tracking media spending.

Paced by the Scott campaign’s $50 million, the Republican side has invested nearly $79 million in television spending since April compared to Democrats’ $49 million behind Nelson.

Back at The Villages, the attack ads against Gillum appeared to be resonating with retirees gathered for a Saturday DeSantis appearance that drew about 400.

“He scares me, I’m sorry,” 75-year-old retiree Suzanne Zimmerman, a member of Villagers for Trump, said of Gillum.

His race has nothing to do with her fear, she said.

“Although Gillum does say that there are too many white men in government,” Zimmerman added. “So that’s unfortunate that he is actually a racist.”