The Lost Black Scholar Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought
by David A. Varel
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-53488-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-75443-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-53491-6
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Allison Davis (1902–83), a preeminent black scholar and social science pioneer, is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking investigations into inequality, Jim Crow America, and the cultural biases of intelligence testing. Davis, one of America’s first black anthropologists and the first tenured African American professor at a predominantly white university, produced work that had tangible and lasting effects on public policy, including contributions to Brown v. Board of Education, the federal Head Start program, and school testing practices. Yet Davis remains largely absent from the historical record. For someone who generated such an extensive body of work this marginalization is particularly surprising. But it is also revelatory.

In The Lost Black Scholar, David A. Varel tells Davis’s compelling story, showing how a combination of institutional racism, disciplinary eclecticism, and iconoclastic thinking effectively sidelined him as an intellectual. A close look at Davis’s career sheds light not only on the racial politics of the academy but also the costs of being an innovator outside of the mainstream. Equally important, Varel argues that Davis exemplifies how black scholars led the way in advancing American social thought. Even though he was rarely acknowledged for it, Davis refuted scientific racism and laid bare the environmental roots of human difference more deftly than most of his white peers, by pushing social science in bold new directions. Varel shows how Davis effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

David A. Varel is David A. Varel is an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. He holds a PhD in American history from the University of Colorado, and previously served as a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

REVIEWS

“In The Lost Black Scholar, David A. Varel has sought to bring Allison Davis out of the shadows and he succeeds quite convincingly. This book is an important contribution to African American history, education history, and social science history. There are numerous books on African American scholars in the twentieth century, but this is the first on Davis—he is well worth the attention.”
— Wayne J. Urban, University of Alabama

The Lost Black Scholar draws deeply from a rich and varied set of archival material. Varel does a masterful job of documenting Allison Davis’s career path and showing how his efforts fit into the intellectual currents circumscribing the African American social condition in the early and mid-twentieth century. This book should awaken and stimulate interest in Davis, and encourage greater understanding of the consequences and politics of racial scholarship.”
— Alford A. Young, Jr., University of Michigan

“Highly recommended. . . A valuable, overdue reevaluation.”
— Choice

“Varel skillfully uses the story of Allison Davis—a social scientist in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and education—to tell a larger story of African American intellectual strivings before and during the Civil Rights Movement. . . . If those contributions were merely what Varel covered here, the book would be important in its own right. But what also adds to The Lost Black Scholar is how Varel connects Davis’ earlier life in Washington, D.C. to his own strivings in the academy and beyond. . . . After reading The Lost Black Scholar, it will be difficult to forget about the achievements of social scientist Allison Davis.”
— Society for US Intellectual History

“Well-researched and erudite. . . The Lost Black Scholar is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of twentieth-century social science in the United States. Varel does an excellent job in explaining the social and intellectual context for Davis’s work.”
— History of Education Quarterly

“Effectively links the past to the present. . . The Lost Black Scholar is well researched, relying on numerous archives and the Davis family's personal records. . . .  There is a lesson to be learned from Davis's life, which Varel poignantly makes: efforts must be made to create new social systems that provide equity ”
— Journal of American History

“Scholars like W. E. B. Du-Bois, St. Clair Drake, and John Hope Franklin are familiar names in African American historiography, but Varel laments the lesser acclaim accorded Davis. Varel’s research assesses the scholarship of Davis in mid-century America in the context of the pervasive racism that haunted (if not shaped) his professional career. . . . Varel has mined neglected archival sources and provided a useful representation of how a serious scholar navigated, with considerable success, the turbulent waters of race and scholarship in mid-century America.”
— The American Historical Review

“Meticulous and comprehensive. . . The Lost Black Scholar is an exciting and innovative intellectual biography of Allison Davis, easily one of the most brilliant and accomplished academics of the twentieth century. . . This well-written and exquisitely researched book may be a generation late in the making, however, it compensates for the time lost. Varel’s excellent award-caliber treatise on the life and career of Allison Davis is a major contribution to the historiography on Black scholars in the academy and, because of it, Davis’ legacy will only expand. It cannot be read without profit.”
— Journal of Negro Education

“In this trim and athletic volume, Varel successfully shows us the importance of Davis’s work and life. . . The Lost Black Scholar is clearly written and almost relentlessly structured, moving through topics, trends, and viewpoints in an order that makes reading a breeze. As a result, it can be read by anyone who cares about Davis and his work, not just academic anthropologists—an important consideration given Varel’s goal of bringing Davis back into the public record as a prominent African-American scholar.”
— History of Anthropology Review

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0001
[African American;intellectual;marginalization;interdisciplinary;iconoclasm;racism;class;caste;anthropology;culture and personality]
The introduction first identifies Davis as an important and pioneering African-American intellectual within the twentieth-century United States. It then takes up as its central problem the question of why, despite his achievements, he has been so marginalized within the historiography. The answer offered is three-fold: his interdisciplinary activity, his iconoclasm, and racism within the academy. First, as Davis moved between English, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and education, scholars lost track of his contributions, which transgressed disciplinary lines. Second, Davis’s iconoclastic ideas (New Humanist philosophy during the New Negro Renaissance, caste and class stratification during the Cold War, and cultural biases of intelligence tests during their proliferation), and his affiliation with iconoclastic research traditions (social anthropology in the interwar United States, culture-and-personality via Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, and education as applied anthropology at the University of Chicago), marginalized his work. Finally, racism within the academy marginalized Davis’s contributions. As he collaborated with white scholars, even as the chief theorist and first author, his contributions were often subsumed under theirs. All of these factors highlight how a close look at Davis’s marginalized career reveals a great deal about not simply one man, but the twentieth-century United States as a whole. (pages 1 - 11)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0002
[Washington DC;Woodrow Wilson;Dunbar High School;black bourgeoisie;Williams College;Harvard;New Humanism;Irving Babbitt;Hampton Institute;New Negro Renaissance]
The first chapter traces Davis’s social and intellectual influences in the first third of his life, from 1902 to 1931. In 1902, Davis was born into a relatively affluent black family in Washington, D.C. Though his family suffered from Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the federal government, Allison nevertheless achieved a first-rate education from Dunbar High School and was firmly part of the black middle class. After graduating as valedictorian, Davis studied English literature at Williams College from 1920 to 1924, again graduating as valedictorian. Then, he completed a master’s degree in English literature from Harvard College in 1925, where he was influenced by the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt. In 1925, Davis took a job as a professor of English at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he worked until 1931. During these years, he contributed to the New Negro Renaissance while encouraging students to protest the administrative paternalism at Hampton and other white-run black colleges. (pages 12 - 42)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0003
[New Negro Renaissance;Sterling Brown;realism;National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;Crisis;National Urban League;Opportunity;William Edward Burghardt Du Bois;Langston Hughes;modernism]
The second chapter analyzes Davis’s literary style and intellectual agenda during the New Negro Renaissance. It shows how Davis, along with his good friend Sterling Brown, aimed to endow the poor black masses with humanity and virtue through a distinctive style of critical realism called “Negro Stoicism.” Publishing in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Crisis and the National Urban League’s Opportunity magazines, Davis combined literature with polemical essays that promoted racial solidarity and critiqued the approaches of leading black intellectuals of the time. He criticized the “race chauvinism” of the older generation, led by William Edward BurghardtDu Bois, who used art as propaganda. He also castigated sordid representations of black people developed by many of the younger artists, led by Langston Hughes, who were influenced by modernism. Because Davis participated in the Renaissance from Virginia, and because he drew inspiration for his work from the poor blacks he encountered there, his ideas reveal the national scope of the New Negro Renaissance, and they make clear how bottom-up forces shaped the movement. (pages 43 - 61)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0004
[Harvard;Radcliffe;Earnest Hooton;social anthropology;Lloyd Warner;London School of Economics;Bronislaw Malinowski;Lancelot Hogben;scientific racism;University of Berlin]
The third chapter evaluates the formal graduate training in anthropology of Allison Davis and his wife Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. From 1931 to 1932, the couple attended Harvard College and Radcliffe College, respectively, where they both studied under racial taxonomist Earnest Hooton. Allison was especially influenced by social anthropologist Lloyd Warner, who was in the process of developing an ambitious comparative sociology of modern civilizations. The following year, Allison and Elizabeth enrolled in the PhD program in anthropology at the London School of Economics. There, Allison studied under social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, but he was most influenced by social biologist Lancelot Hogben, a leader in the fight against scientific racism. Growing out of his collaboration with Hogben, Allison published his first social scientific article. Allison and Elizabeth also studied briefly at the University of Berlin in the spring of 1933, but Adolf Hitler’s rise to power cut the trip short. Overall, this chapter makes clear how Davis shifted from the arts to the social sciences in order to become more relevant to black people’s needs. He did so by contributing to the environmentalist trends within social science that counteracted scientific racism. (pages 62 - 81)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0005
[Mary Gardner;Burleigh Gardner;Saint Clair Drake;Natchez, Mississippi;Deep South;Gunnar Myrdal;An American Dilemma;Jim Crow;caste;class]
The fourth chapter begins by chronicling the fieldwork of Allison Davis, Elizabeth Davis, Mary Gardner, Burleigh Gardner, and Saint Clair Drake in their community study of Natchez, Mississippi, from 1933 to 1935. It then evaluates the classic book that emerged from that research: Deep South (1941), along with Allison Davis’s memo to Gunnar Myrdal, which informed parts of Myrdal’s highly influential Carnegie Corporation study of American race relations: An American Dilemma (1944). Finally, the chapter explores the reception of Deep South among social scientists and the larger reading public. As many commentators understood, the book resulted in an unprecedented depth and breadth of ethnographic material on life within the southern United States. It breathed life into the world of Jim Crow, and it explained how racial caste and class intersected to stratify life in Natchez. Less appreciated was how Allison and Elizabeth transgressed racial mores in the academy by taking the lead in an interracial community study, with Allison serving as first author of the book. (pages 82 - 107)
This chapter is available at:
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0006
[culture-and-personality;John Dollard;Children of Bondage;Dillard University;Edward Sapir;Yale;Institute of Human Relations;caste;class]
The fifth chapter investigates Davis’s involvement in the culture-and-personality school in the latter half of the 1930s. In particular, it tracks the making and reception of Davis’s and John Dollard’s classic book Children of Bondage (1940). Davis began the study while a professor of anthropology at Dillard University in New Orleans. He allied with Yale sociologist John Dollard, who had devised a distinct culture-and-personality orientation under the guidance of linguist Edward Sapir. After Davis had gathered the research with Dollard, the two men spent the first several months of 1938 at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations, where they drafted the book. Children of Bondage represented a landmark of interdisciplinary collaboration, and it was theoretically pioneering in combining the Davis’s caste-and-class framework with an analysis of socialization among black youths in Natchez and New Orleans. In addition to theoretical innovation, Children of Bondage also served as a compelling document that humanized the black youth that it described. The book’s commercial success and positive reception testified to the book’s achievements, though some reviewers misunderstood it as merely enumerating the damage among black youths. (pages 108 - 132)
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0007
[University of Chicago;Julius Rosenwald Foundation;Edwin Embree;Ralph Tyler;Edgar Stern;Robert Hutchins;World War II;racism]
The sixth chapter narrates Davis’s landmark appointment to the University of Chicago faculty in 1942. The appointment made Davis the first African American to secure a full-time position at a predominantly white university, though it was at first limited to a three-year contract with the Julius Rosenwald Foundation subsidizing most of Davis’s salary. The move was made possible through the collaboration of powerful white liberals at the Rosenwald Foundation, especially president Edwin Embree, and at the University of Chicago, above all educationalist Ralph Tyler. Despite the opposition of Rosenwald trustee Edgar B. Stern and others, Embree and Tyler allied with University president Robert M. Hutchins to effectively challenge the color line. In this, they were aided by the democratizing effects of World War II. Yet even though the appointment did have far-reaching implications, its exceptional nature underscored the larger continuity in race relations even amid progressive change. The overt and covert racism Davis faced at Chicago, which marginalized his accomplishments and was personally humiliating, testified to how little had changed. (pages 133 - 150)
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0008
[University of Chicago;Ralph Tyler;Robert Havighurst;Lloyd Warner;Committee on Human Development;class;culture;E. Franklin Frazier;Father of the Man;intercultural education]
The seventh chapter examines Davis’s work as part of the Department of Education at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. It explains the productive interdisciplinary research he conducted alongside Ralph Tyler, Robert Havighurst, Lloyd Warner, and many others as part of Chicago’s Committee on Human Development and other organizations. In this period, Davis developed his most significant social thought, which drew from his culture-and-personality orientation to posit class as a type of culture, or learning environment. While most American theorists had turned away from class analyses, Davis continued to explore the deep-seated class divisions within the United States, particularly as they characterized the family, the workplace, and the school. In many ways, his analyses and accomplishments matched those of prominent black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. In addition to publishing many articles in esteemed journals, Davis released Father of the Man (1947), which explained to a public audience the implications of class divisions for the rearing of children. His work related to the intercultural education movement had the most enduring impact. (pages 151 - 171)
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0009
[intelligence testing;Social Class Influences upon Learning;Robert Havighurst;cultural bias;class;Henry Garrett;Educational Testing Service]
The eighth chapter evaluates Davis’s work on intelligence-testing, which marked the culmination of his social thought and the height of his social influence. In 1948, Harvard invited Davis to give its prestigious Inglis Lecture in education, which Davis then did and had published as Social-Class Influences upon Learning (1948). This rich, compact volume synthesized Davis’s research from the previous two decades, but it emphasized his latest findings from the project on intelligence testing that he spearheaded at the University of Chicago. Davis and colleagues such as Robert Havighurst developed the first quantitative studies of the cultural biases within intelligence tests, which they showed to be discriminatory against lower-class people. Davis’s findings faced stiff resistance from psychologists such as eugenicist Henry E. Garrett and testing companies like the Educational Testing Service. Yet Davis’s iconoclastic work nevertheless galvanized educators and school boards all across the country to revise or abolish their use of the traditional tests. Even more, Davis’s work helped initiate a national debate regarding issues of social class, ability, fairness, and opportunity within the United States, which helped to foment major changes during the social movements of the 1960s. (pages 172 - 195)
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0010
[Brown v. Board of Education;Head Start;Kenneth Clark;National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;Benjamin Bloom;Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation;culture of poverty;Daniel Patrick Moynihan]
The ninth chapter traces Davis’s influence into the 1950s and 1960s, when his research continued to effect social change. In particular, Davis contributed to two historic liberal achievements within the twentieth-century United States: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the federal Head Start program. First, Davis helped to lay the intellectual foundations for the abolition of segregation within the schools, allying with Kenneth Clark and other black intellectuals associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to make clear how segregation was unconstitutional, unwise, and damaging not only to black children but to the entire United States. Later, Davis allied with Benjamin Bloom and others to galvanize support for Head Start. The two men’s publication of Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation (1965) worked toward those ends. Finally, Davis’s work added depth to the superficial debates over the “culture of poverty” that raged in the 1960s, pointing to more sophisticated ways to understand poverty and culture. Yet too often Davis’s nuanced vision was marginalized within these debates, evident partly in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s failure to even include him among his list of black scholars who had studied black poverty. (pages 196 - 214)
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- David A. Varel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226534916.003.0011
[American Academy of Arts and Sciences;United States Postal Service;Black History Month;race;class;Leadership, Love, and Aggression;Martin Luther King, Jr.]
The conclusion begins by examining the public honors that Davis received late in his career and after he passed away. Notable among these were his election to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the first scholar from the field of education, and his placement on a stamp by the United States Postal Service for Black History Month in 1994. The public response to Davis revealed the contradictions of a society that could simultaneously become more open racially and yet still fail to address the persistent race and class inequalities that Davis spent his life enumerating. Right up to the very end, in fact, Davis was writing and speaking out. Only a few months before he died, he published Leadership, Love, and Aggression (1983), which included psycho-biographies of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Jr. Davis’s work makes clear that the only way to truly honor him is to try to live up to his ideas by working towards a more democratic and egalitarian society. The conclusion ends with a discussion of Davis’s present significance not only for the historiography, but also for understanding the world today. (pages 215 - 226)
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