Enlightening the Working Class: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Jefferson School of Social Science
In a statement before the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) in 1954, Dr. Howard Selsam, head of the New York Jefferson School of Social Science, quoted Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois as saying that he did not lecture in his own classroom without referring to Marxism. He argued that Marxism was absent in his own education, and therefore he did not want to similarly deprive his own students. Selsam’s statement came after the Jefferson School of Social Science, an affiliate of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), endured years of formal harassment by the SACB. The SACB was a government committee tasked with investigating communist infiltration in the United States. It was authorized under the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act. The SACB would be short-lived, it was disbanded in 1956, but it had a significant casualty list, one that included the Jefferson School of Social Science.
Even while government agencies targeted both individual communists and the CPUSA, W.E.B. Du Bois began to formalize his involvement with the Party. In 1952, he began teaching classes at the Jefferson School. Over the next few years, until the US government forced the school to close in 1956, Du Bois taught classes that examined Africa and the African Diaspora via a Marxist lens. Du Bois’s pedagogical goal to teach his students Marxism fit perfectly with the Jefferson School’s mission to impart the communist message and gain membership. His involvement with the school shows his deep commitment to Marxism as well as his growing radicalism, even in the face of extreme political suppression.
Not only was Du Bois becoming a more visible Party advocate and in some ways functionary, he combined Pan-Africanism with Marxist principles in the classroom to advocate workers’ revolution. Bill Mullen has argued that this is one of Du Bois’s greatest legacies, he “did more” to educate Americans and in particular Black Americans, about Africa and the African Diaspora than “any other person in U.S. history.” Du Bois created a “companionate space” for Black Americans to see Africa as part of their own freedom struggle. His teaching at the Jefferson School of Social Science combined Du Bois’s commitment to both Pan-Africanism and socialism and his growing interest in the global mobilization of working people. 1
The Jefferson School of Social Science was part of the Communist Party’s expansion of the Popular Front and its attempt to appear more American under Earl Browder’s wartime program that declared “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Named after Thomas Jefferson it was an element of the Party’s “patriotic mobilization” during the war. Started in 1944, “the Jeff School,” as leftists called it, emerged at a time when American Communists remained optimistic about the anti-fascist wartime alliances.2
The Jefferson School continued the Party’s long-running attempts at workers’ education. The Party started their “open, adult education centers” in the 1920s, which were often called “workers’ schools.” These early schools were dogmatic and aimed toward Party members, though non-members would not be turned away. Jefferson School historian Marvin Gettleman has argued that the workers’ schools in the early years were more myopic in scope and largely intended to educate the cadre. By the postwar period, these schools were “expanded” and the “curriculum broadened.” Brochures described the Jefferson School as the “People’s University,” aimed primarily at adults, though there was limited programming for children and young adults. Workers and others could take classes in history, philosophy, Marxist education, and job training, among other offerings.3
The school was open to anyone at very reasonable rates. Classes started at $5 for a ten-week course and eventually increased to $8 before the school was closed. Annex locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem were even cheaper, offering eight-week courses for $4. The school provided financial aid to people who could not afford the classes, specifically “veterans, black men and women, and trade unionists.” The open admission meant that FBI informants regularly took classes and later appeared at hearings on the school. However, the school did bar “known enemies of the working class” from taking classes or attending lectures.4
The Jefferson School had one required course that served as an introductory course to Marxism titled The Science of Society: An Introduction to Marxism. The course description stated it was a scientific examination of the “economic, political, and social institutions of the world we live in.” Du Bois’s students would have had a formal introduction of the major Marxist theoretical frameworks before taking his classes, something Du Bois himself never had. It was also occasionally offered in Spanish and offered for free. The twelve-week course covered topics like nationalism, imperialism, and fascism, so the students would have been well-primed for Du Bois’s classes. Once the student completed it, there was a variety of courses open to him, but more likely her, since most Jefferson School students were women.5
Some of the school faculty were individuals expelled from the City Colleges after the Rapp-Coudert purges; they included the school’s director, Howard Selsam. In 1940, New York State created the Rapp-Coudert committee to expel communist professors, and was, according to Ellen Schrecker, the “largest purge of politically undesirable professors” until the McCarthy period. The faculty were top scholars in their fields. For example, Herbert Aptheker taught classes on “Negro History” and Philip Foner offered courses in American Labor. The Jefferson School had a paid staff that taught most of the classes. But it brought in other teachers, like Du Bois, some of whom donated their earnings. The classes were not simply meant to educate, part of the school’s goal was to incite its students to action to “defend and advance Marxism.” The school did that by attacking “anti-Marxist” ideas, especially and including biblical prescriptions of an “immutable human nature.” Something that, Gettleman argues, offended many of the Christian FBI informants in the classes. The classes sought to inspire students to action and therefore often focused on America’s radical and activist past. Herbert Aptheker’s class emphasized revolts and “liberatory activity” by slaves and free blacks.6
Gettleman described the school instruction as “engaged pedagogy.” Instead of education for individual pursuits, Jefferson School instructors taught students how to understand and engage in social processes that could create change. This was not education simply to obtain skills; the Jefferson School hoped to create activists. There was a literal expectation that students and teachers would march in parades and engage in actions. Students also received instruction on how to advocate for social justice issues. Du Bois’s classes on Africa and the African Diaspora introduced white working-class as well as black students to the imperatives of global class struggle and revolution and encouraged cross-racial alliances to combat capitalism’s excesses.7
The School also held classes exploring the “Woman Question.” In 1949, it sponsored a conference titled Marxism and the Woman Question, which 600 people attended. They saw communist luminaries like Claudia Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn discuss “the family, women in industry and the professions, attitudes of male superiority, and the special problems of Negro women.” Because the conference drew large numbers, the school began offering a regular class on women’s issues, taught by Myra Page, novelist and unionist. Eleanor Flexner also taught classes on women’s history and helped to produce a 20-page booklet on Questions and Answers on the Woman Question. Kate Weigand has argued that Flexnor’s and other women’s work at the school assisted the development of “left-wing” feminism.8
The students at the school had varying levels of education and literacy and therefore, the scholars offering classes found teaching a challenge. The school developed ways to deal with the issue. Its investment in the student was more than just advancing working class education, it was also interested in gaining foot soldiers for the Party. If students did not attend subsequent class sections, school officials took the instructor aside to ensure they were speaking at the student’s level. The school also did not assign grades for classes and had no assessment framework, which took pressure off the students. Its most in-character strategy was to inform the students that “capitalist rulers” did not want working people to read, let alone understand Marxism. By learning it, workers could gain satisfaction from mastering it and the “incentive of waging a just and wholesome” struggle against class oppression. Learning at Jefferson School was framed as an essential element of revolution.9
Du Bois’s relationship with the Jefferson School predated his inclusion as a faculty member. By 1946, his politics turned to open sympathy toward the CPUSA. Though Du Bois looked on the Soviet Union and eventually communist China with favor, he was always critical of communists in the CPUSA, who, he felt, did not do enough to address racism among the white working class. After World War II, influenced by both the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb, Du Bois turned to the peace movement. Bill Mullen has described Du Bois’s postwar peace activism as a near obsession. Cold War fears framed the peace movement, and Du Bois was particularly concerned with the decolonizing states in Asia and Africa. He feared that another world war, with nuclear-armed nations, including the Soviet Union, would be a “global counterrevolution” and would harm the world’s working class and the sovereignty of decolonized states. He also believed that war was simply a tool of capitalists to maintain control over disenfranchised populations. The peace movement was a way to organize working people globally against their own “extinction.”10
At the same time, the peace movement hoped to neutralize the threat the Cold War had on newly decolonized states. Du Bois looked on excitedly while African states began to gain their independence. He drew together the “bilateral strands” of his theories on Pan-Africanism and global socialism. Initially, he hoped to see worker’s revolutions in the newly independent African states “modeled” on the Chinese and Soviet revolutions. He later relented and adopted the “internationalist nationalism” that predominated in many former colonies. Internationalist nationalism was a “shared ideology” of decolonizing states based in anti-imperialism and integrating socialism into “national liberation struggles.” Du Bois wanted to develop an Africa-specific socialism that could lead global revolutionary struggles. Gerald Horne has described this as Du Bois’s “dialectically intertwined goals” – ending African colonialism and peace. With the outbreak of war in Korea, American intelligence officials began to pay closer attention to peace activists. They were often associated with communism because their activism was interpreted as an attempt to disarm the United States and make it vulnerable to a Soviet takeover. The Soviet Union also actively encouraged the movement, automatically, in the minds of intelligence officials, associating peace activists with the Soviet state.11
Du Bois’s outspoken peace and civil rights activism made him more of a security threat and a target of federal authorities. Under the banner of the Council on African Affairs (CAA), Du Bois “raised funds for…liberation movements” and he “mobilized and organized mass support against colonialism.” His growing radicalism alienated former friends and colleagues. Demands for speaking engagements and work began to dry up. The Jefferson School of Social Science provided an opportunity for an increasingly marginalized Du Bois to lay out his hopes for a socialist Africa and Africa’s leadership in global socialist revolution, and to make a marginal, but increasingly needed income. As Horne has argued, teaching at the Jefferson School put him into contact with Africans studying in New York and at the school which helped Du Bois understand and articulate his anti-colonial socialism.12
Du Bois became a favorite speaker for Jefferson School leaders who invited him several times to take part in school events. In 1945, Howard Selsam invited Du Bois to a meeting to discuss the formation of the United Nations that year and what it meant for Black Americans. In 1946, he participated in the school’s annual bookfair on a panel titled “The Road to Negro Freedom.” Elizabeth Lawson and Doxey Wilkerson joined him on the panel. An established scholar and Du Bois friend, Wilkerson taught classes on Black history at the school. He had a reputation in civil rights work, including participation in Gunnar Myrdal’s influential study of American racism titled An American Dilemma, to which Du Bois gave some input and favorably reviewed. In the 1940s, Wilkerson was the managing editor for The People’s Voice. Under his editorship Du Bois wrote a regular column on Pan-Africanism. Wilkerson also served on the defense team for the Smith Act cases and asked Du Bois to serve as an expert witness on scientific Marxism. Wilkerson became the Director of Faculty and curriculum at the Jefferson School and eventually brought Du Bois to the faculty. Though Wilkerson may have been motivated to help his friend, David Levering Lewis has suggested that Party leaders instructed Wilkerson and Herbert Aptheker to recruit the famous scholar.13
In 1949, Doxey Wilkerson formally invited Du Bois to join the faculty of the Jefferson School. He asked him to teach a ten-week seminar on Africa and World Imperialism, an area about which the school was determined to end its “neglect.” Du Bois did not take up the offer to teach classes in 1949, though he continued to give lectures at the school. It was not until 1952 that he began teaching regularly, and the classes he taught reflected his commitment to teaching Marxism in relationship to Pan-Africanism. Between 1952 and 1956, Du Bois maintained a fairly-regular teaching schedule, while also continuing his travels and other speaking engagements. His teaching commitments to the school were flexible enough to allow him to offer classes at his leisure, but the remuneration was certainly not enough to meet “professional level[s] of compensation.” Du Bois received $15 per class at the end of each session; one ten-week session would bring in $150. But he had the freedom to propose classes that were of interest to him and to teach around his own busy schedule.14
In 1952, Du Bois proposed a two-part, twenty-week course on the “Background of African Liberation Struggles.” Arranged in two ten-week parts, students were encouraged to take both parts of the course and were invited to apply to enter the class. The competition to attend Du Bois’s first course at the Jefferson School “was keen” and Doxey Wilkerson loftily described the class as “notable” in the history of Marxist education in the United States. Du Bois teaching his first class at Jefferson School was an event. Though the tuition was generally $8 per class, classes from the famed Dr. Du Bois cost $10 with an additional $.50 library fee. The course began with lectures from Du Bois on “the People and History of Africa from 5000 B.C. to the present” and the students were expected to complete reports on colonized Africa. Du Bois listed the report possibilities for his students, which would include the “whole of the continent” by the classes end. The course was heavily female with fourteen female students and six males. Family friend and future author of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry, attended the class and did her presentation on the Belgian Congo.15
Like a responsible historian, Du Bois’s reading list was extensive and included several primary sources for each topic. He emphasized the importance of reading and told the class on the first day that “scholarship doesn’t come without reading,” and that students needed to learn how to do directed reading. Included on the syllabus was Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s article on the Congo and the founding of the “Free State,” as well as Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” He also included several African authors, including the Nigerian Pan-African Nationalist Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe’s text “British and Axis Aims in Africa,” and Igbo intellectual Mbonu Ojike. Feminist and anti-fascist Sylvia Pankhurst appeared on Du Bois’s syllabus as a source on Italian territories Eritrea and Somaliland. He also included some-time friend and one-time communist George Padmore’s texts How Britain Rules Africa and Britain’s Third Empire. Padmore’s texts wed Du Bois’s focus on both Pan-Africanism and socialism.16
Even while Du Bois moved closer to communism, Padmore left the Party in 1933. The two had a rocky working relationship, but Pan-Africanism remained a tie that bound the two’s interests. In 1945, Padmore wrote to Du Bois about their shared goal of “proletarianizing” the Pan-African movement and that “workers and peasants” would be the backbone of any movement that “middle-class intellectuals” like themselves, would establish. In a 1950 article, Du Bois praised Padmore’s work and argued it was an important addition to the classroom. He began the article lamenting that children learn nothing of “work and wage, income and property” in schools and therefore, do not learn how badly reform is needed. That reform predated Marx and would not “end with Joseph Stalin.” He went on to describe Padmore as one of the “most informed writers on economic subjects.” Du Bois mentioned both books used in his course. Britain’s Third Empire, new at the time of Du Bois’s writing, was written at the request of the Pan-African Congress, of which Du Bois was a leader, to analyze the new “Economic Imperialism” that plagued Africa. Padmore argued in the book that with the liberation of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Malaya, Britain’s primary “milch-cow[s],” the British were forced to turn to Africa to “recover” its wealth and power. Therefore, Padmore concluded, Africa was Britain’s “savior” against poverty and “Asiatic Communism.”17
For Padmore and Du Bois, the new economic imperialism, fed by Cold War imperatives to secure friendly “allies,” increased Africa’s exploitation at the hands of new colonial powers. This was why both Padmore and Du Bois saw the need for a global Pan-African uprising against the capitalist states, especially the United States. It is also the reason why Du Bois was hesitant to embrace nationalist movements that could hinder any such revolution. Du Bois also worried that the postwar world was being developed without and at the expense of Africa. In these years, he and Padmore, despite differences, grew closer and cooperated in the Pan-African movement. Padmore reinvigorated Pan-Africanism by creating the Pan-African Federation and organizing conferences with Du Bois as a “distant organizer.” Padmore’s texts, along with the other readings, provided students with a Marxist interpretation of European colonialism and set the stage for students to understand Du Bois’s hope for a socialist Africa.18
At the end of Du Bois’s 20-week class, the Jefferson School paid him $300 and asked if he would be willing to do a series of five lectures to 100 students. He could choose the topic, either “the situation in Africa” or “The Negro in Africa and the Americas.” Du Bois eventually titled his five-week seminar “Present Problems of Africa.” While the school was continuing to engage Du Bois’s services, federal pressure was beginning to make regular operations difficult. The wartime alliances in which communists had invested so much hope and energy in had dissolved. By 1953, various committees and legislation moved to make communists and communist institutions virtually illegal. The Jefferson School’s open embrace of Marxism and controversial instructors led to unwanted attention from federal authorities.19
In a letter to faculty in the fall 1953 term, Howard Selsam wrote that the school “must have a large registration.” Only students who were registered would be allowed to attend the class. Each student had a specific registration card and the instructor was required to check and make sure that they had either the “BLUE” card or a “special pass” from the registrar. If they did not, the student was to be sent to the office “immediately.” Selsam also instructed his faculty to be sure and “get to know” any new students, especially “industrial workers, Negroes, and Puerto Ricans.”20 The school’s open enrollment policy was becoming a problem after the school learned of FBI informers in the classes. The SACB gathered most of its information from these informers. Administrators began to take precautions including no longer taking roll to protect student anonymity, instead, Selsam used the registration card system. It also allowed a “special entity” called the Institute of Marxist Studies to screen potential students, but the Institute is what alerted the SACB to the Jefferson School and ultimately spelled its downfall. After the Jeff School became an SACB target, it went into steady decline, offering fewer courses and attracting less students.21
Under the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act, the Attorney General was authorized to order organizations to register as “Communist Front Organizations.” By 1952 and 1953, educational institutions and educators were being targeted. In 1953, the school was ordered to register as a “subversive” organization. In response, the school issued “A Statement of American Educators,” to protest the label and insist on a hearing.22 The statement, signed by 153 prominent educators, representing some of America’s most prestigious institutions, protested the Jefferson School’s inclusion on the “subversive organizations” list. The statement claimed that those on the list were believed to be “adjuncts of the Communist Party,” but it claimed that “any institution that teaches Marxism” could be considered that. The statement expressed “alarm” that the federal government used its power to condemn educational institutions that taught an “economic philosophy.” The constitution protected the Jefferson School’s teaching of Marxism, as it did any school, and any student wishing to learn about it should be able to “judge for themselves [its] validity.” The statement expressed concern that a “government fiat” could declare any teaching it does not agree with as “subversive.”23
The statement did not attempt to deny that the Jefferson school was “avowedly Marxist.” Instead, it insisted that labeling educators and institutions as “subversive” was a greater threat to America than communism was. The label was designated without “hearing or trial” and was an “extremely dangerous step” toward “thought control” and “thought police.” If Marxist schools like the Jefferson School could be labeled subversive, then any teacher that assigned “Marxist materials” or expressed “Marxist views” could also be labeled. The statement reflected the truth because that is precisely what happened and led to the largest purge of educators during the Cold War. The statement closed with the request that the President and the Attorney General “withdraw the blacklist” as “repugnant to our national ideal of freedom of thought.”24
Du Bois signed the statement, and in May 1954, he wrote a separate memo in support of the School and on his own teaching there. In it he listed a long and impressive list of Universities he taught or lectured at for over a quarter of a century throughout the United States and in England, Japan, Cuba, Liberia, and Haiti. Du Bois made very clear in the memo that he was a well-respected scholar and was, at one point, in high demand among learned institutions. The point of the memo made it clear that no one at the school “dictated the content or orientation” of his teaching. However, Du Bois also made it known that he had an interest in the “philosophy of Karl Marx” and that he was a Socialist in his “theoretical teaching.” A bold claim, but the school, as well as Du Bois, stood firm for academic freedom. Du Bois also noted that he visited the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and China and followed each nation’s development with “the greatest sympathy and interest.”25
By 1954, Du Bois faced his own problems from the federal government. In 1948, Du Bois was “dismissed as Director of Special Research” from the NAACP and began to work with his friends Paul Robeson and Alpheus Hutton in the CAA. It was placed on the Attorney General’s Subversive organization list, which put Du Bois under “closer examination by the federal government.” Another organization he was affiliated with, the Peace Information Center, was ordered to register with the Department of Justice, when it refused, its members, including Du Bois were indicted. Though Du Bois was exonerated, many people and organizations distanced themselves from him. The federal government also seized his passport in 1952 to prevent his travel to a peace conference and did not return it until 1958. Du Bois’s politics were increasingly proscribing his professional and personal movements. But the Jefferson School eagerly maintained his employ and continued to request Du Bois-run classes. And Du Bois in turn was grateful for the work as his “financial prospects” were becoming more difficult under the federal government’s watchful eye.26
Perhaps as important to the school, despite the political suppression, Du Bois’s name still meant something. In May 1954, after releasing his memo, the Jefferson School asked him to participate in a meeting in its defense and give a few brief remarks on the school’s behalf, along with other leading figures including Broadus Mitchell, Robert Cohen, and the school’s attorney Harry Sacher. Howard Selsam wrote that the school was “most eager” to have his participation. The school was contesting the order and in June, a SACB hearing was to be held to decide whether the school would have to follow the Attorney General’s order to register.27
Meanwhile, Du Bois was preparing for his fall course on Southern Reconstruction: 1865 to 1880. The course description stated that it would examine the “central problems and historic tasks” of Reconstruction. Presidential Reconstruction under Andrew Johnson was described as “serfdom in new forms” while Radical Reconstruction was “democratic revolution.” The course would also explore the “Role of the governing people’s coalition” in the South and border states, as well as the contradictions within the coalition. The end of Reconstruction and the ascent of “monopoly capitalism” and the “Wall Street-Bourbon alliance” against the American people would be covered at the course’s conclusion.28
The course reflected Du Bois’s revolutionary interpretation of the post-Civil War years from his classic book Black Reconstruction. In the book, he argued that the Civil War was an “experiment of Marxism” because both white and black laborers rebelled against the ruling classes. The course also fixed Black Americans within the global class struggle and the African diaspora. Reconstruction was one attempt at revolutionizing the social and economic order, and though it failed, it proved that American working people could be radicalized. Cedric Robinson has argued that Du Bois’s text was the “development of a theory of history” that emphasized mass action, while also being skeptical of the left’s approach to racism. As Robinson suggests, Black Reconstruction was also a “revision of Marx’s theory” because it argued that slavery and racism “disallowed the development of democracy.” For Robinson, the book was one of the most important contributions to “Black social movements.” Doxey Wilkerson believed that it was this that made Du Bois so valuable to the school and Marxist education. Du Bois was a critic of anti-black socialism that counseled black Americans to wait for the socialist revolution, only then could true equality be achieved. He rejected that proposition and instead argued that the “Negro Problem” was the “great test” of American socialism.29
When Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction, he was an avowed Marxist, but also a critic of the CPUSA. By 1946, he moved closer to the Party and shared his theory on Reconstruction, the South, and the “future of American Negroes” in a speech to the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a communist front. In the speech he argued that the South was the “firing line” for the emancipation of Black Americans as well as the “African Negro and the Negros of the West Indies.” This speech moved Du Bois closer to the Party, and further from the liberal civil rights movement. His classes at the Jefferson School and his talks at Party affiliated organizations introduced the importance of Black Americans in the African Diaspora and the revolutionary potential of cross-racial alliances in global revolution. Something the Party was rhetorically committed to, but rarely did its leadership act on it. Historians have argued that Du Bois was key to introducing Black Americans to the African Diaspora, but his work with Party organizations and schools introduced radical white leftists to Diasporic politics as well.30
At the end of the term, the students hosted a banquet to honor Du Bois. The Daily Worker reported that the class helped the students understand that Reconstruction was a missed opportunity in cross-racial alliances and that both the Ku Klux Klan and capitalism crushed postwar attempts to achieve equality, universal suffrage, and access to education. In a speech at the banquet one student proclaimed that she followed Du Bois’s career since High School when her white school teacher asked him to intercede when the school banned mixed-race glee-club chorus. The class also presented Du Bois with gifts to show their appreciation. Rather than lecture to the class, Du Bois had students do research and presentations. At the banquet he told them that he learned as much from them as they from him. During the presentation, Doxey Wilkerson sat on the side “beeming” at the adoration between Du Bois and his students.31
Du Bois also fostered camaraderie and discussion among his students outside the classroom. In Shirley Graham Du Bois’s memoir about her husband, she wrote that at the end of every term the couple invited students to their home and encouraged them to bring any Africans they knew. The evening seemed to be an extension of classroom discussions as Du Bois asked questions about whether African nations should become independent through violent revolution, can the colonial powers be trusted, and should colonials be allowed to remain after independence. The discussions could be heated, but Du Bois tried to maintain a collegial atmosphere while his wife served refreshments to calm the mood. She claimed that there were a number of highly placed African officials who told her later how much they appreciated these evenings at their home.32
Du Bois’s teaching remained dependent on both his schedule, and on the school’s ability to continue to offer classes and recruit students. With the increased pressure from the SACB, fewer and fewer students associated with the school and left it “pressed” for funds. The negative attention did not dissuade Du Bois from working at the school and in spring 1953, he offered to run a course on “the history of Africa” so long as his health would permit it. Du Bois wanted to teach it as a seminar so that he and the students could “all study along together.” By that semester, Du Bois would reach his eighty-fifth birthday. Despite his advanced age, he remained committed to teaching, though it is unclear whether this stemmed from financial considerations or a passion for teaching.33
Despite Du Bois’s enthusiasm for teaching, the Jefferson School continued to face legal issues. In the fall of 1954, it lost its appeal to the SACB which ordered it to register as a Communist Front with the Attorney General. The Board claimed that the school’s affiliation with the Party and its commitment to teach Marxist-Leninist theories meant that it was not in fact an educational institution. The Board also believed that its decision did not interfere with academic freedom, since none was being exercised at the school. School officials responded with a statement that claimed the Board’s decision was “another aggression against free inquiry.” They declared their intention and “patriotic duty” to “resist efforts” to silence the school. Despite the SACB order, the school would limp on for two more years and appeal the decision.34
During the school’s last semester in operation, in the fall of 1956, Du Bois offered a 10-week course on the History of the African Slave Trade. The course text was Du Bois’s own The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States. The class lectures focused on the slave trade to America but included units on the global slave trade and the economic trade. Course lectures included, “Planting, Farming and Trading Colonies,” “The American Revolution and the Civil War and Slavery,” as well as ones on the Haitian Revolution and “the International Slave trade from 1783 to 1862.”35
The course midterm exam, which included only seven questions, reflects Du Bois’s Marxist interpretation of the slave trade. For three questions, Du Bois provided answers and instructed students to cross out the answer if they did not agree and write the correct answer. The first question asked what the cause of war was, the answer “Desire of capitalists for private profit.” That answer was too simple however. The correct answer was that the “capitalist class” through government, wanted to “control foreign markets and sources of raw materials” and “AGGRESSIVE-Demand,” not just private profit. Question number three asked who fought wars and the provided answer was simply “The workers.” This too was wrong. The “vast majority” of soldiers were workers, but there were a “few Generals” who died “mostly in bed-not on battlefield.” Thus, workers were dying on battlefields to secure governments – read “capitalist class’” – profits. This was done while simultaneously exploiting native populations. The workers in the metropole and in the colonies, or states from where kidnapped Africans came, were subsumed within the same system of class exploitation.36
Question number four asked whether workers fight the capitalists and the provided answer was that no they fight each other. The correct answer was that that only happens in “capitalist IMPERIALIST wars.” Du Bois’s answer reflects his commitment to workers revolutions modeled on China and the Soviet Union. What he wanted students to understand was that in the Russian Revolution, Chinese Civil War, and the Paris Commune, “class-conscious workers” fought for the “INTERESTS of oppressed working” people. The follow up question simply asked why. The expected answer was that workers were treated as “cannon fodder” by “CAPITALIST IMPERIALISTS.” They are “poisoned” to believe the “IMPERIALIST PROMISE” of “LIFE, LIBERTY, EQUALITY, DEMOCRACY,” and this can only happen with the defeat of the enemy. The true answer to ending capitalist war and achieving security and liberty was under “SOCIALISM.”37
Another question asked what caused wars before capitalism. True to Marxist theory, all struggle has been a struggle “BETWEEN THE-HAVES-AND-HAVE NOTS.” The final two questions asked about the eradication of capitalist wars. One asked whether war would cease if capitalist profit was outlawed and the other asked if workers would fight each other if capitalist wars cease. The answers to both were essentially the same. War would never cease unless capitalism itself was destroyed and socialism reigned. Though Du Bois did concede that standing armies would be necessary for a time under socialism until the “former exploiting classes and their foreign allies” were repressed. In an answer that not a single student on the exam wrote, Du Bois claimed that it was only under communism that people would produce what they needed and receive according to their abilities and needs. Only under this system could war be abolished and a “NEW MAN” and “NEW FREE BORN WOMAN” could ever truly be free. Du Bois was clearly at home at a Marxist school since the students, though far less impassioned in their answers, scored quite well.38
At the fall semester’s conclusion, Du Bois and his fellow instructors received a letter from Howard Selsam, with an attached statement from the school’s Board of Trustees. The Board decided to close the school. Though still waiting for the SACB appeal, the government harassment had taken too heavy a toll. The school’s enrollment was down by thousands, resulting in a loss of income. Its legal bills coupled with income loss made it “impossible” for the school to continue. The Board was hopeful that Marxist education would continue in the United States and that academic freedom would once again prevail. Selsam wrote Du Bois his regrets and thanked him for his years of support. The Jefferson School operated for eleven years at the height of the worst anti-communist persecution but somehow managed to attract extraordinary scholars and interested students until its very end.39
John Munro has argued that Du Bois’s later years, within the fold of the Communist Party, have erroneously been interpreted as misguided years in which Du Bois served as a Party pawn. His time at the Jefferson School demonstrates that the Party served his interests as much, if not more, than it served his. Though Du Bois needed income, the Jefferson School funds could hardly be considered enough to draw him. The school provided Du Bois an outlet to articulate the wedding of Pan-Africanism and Socialism that he became so devoted to in his later years. He grew increasingly concerned that “financial neocolonialism” in Africa would mean states would abandon socialism and adopt a self-interested nationalism and capitalism, something he witnessed in newly independent states.40 Because the worker schools were where the revolutionary cadre received their training, the Jefferson School offered an audience ready to hear Du Bois’s revolutionary promises and consider ways to put them into action. It was within the fold of a Communist school that Du Bois could explore the integration of Communism and Pan-Africanism and articulate it to others literate in Marxist theory. Du Bois’s time at the Jefferson School demonstrates that, even in the face of political repression, he supported and imagined a socialist future for both Africa and the United States.
1 Bill V. Mullen, W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line, (London: Pluto Press, 2016), p. 103.
2 Marvin E. Gettleman, “’No Varsity Teams’: New York’s Jefferson School of Social Science, 1943-1956,” Vol. 66: 3, Science & Society, (Fall 2002), pp. 338-340 and Marvin Gettleman, “The Lost World of United States Labor Education: Curricula at East and West Coast Communist Schools, 1944-1957,” in Robert Cherney, et al, eds., American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), p. 205.
3 Gettleman, “’No Varsity Teams,’ pp. 338-340 and Gettleman, “The Lost World of United States Labor Education,” p. 205.
4 Gettleman, “No Varsity Teams,” pp. 347-348.
5 Ibid., p. 345 and “Women Students Show Increase,” New York Times, 29 April 1944, p. 11.
6 Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 50, 75, and Gettleman, “No Varsity Teams,” pp. 345-346.
7 Gettleman, “No Varsity Teams,” pp. 349, 354.
8 Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communists and the Making of Women’s Liberation. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 90-91.
9 Gettleman, “The Lost World of United States Labor Education,” pp. 211-212.
10 Bill V. Mullen, Un-American: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015), p. 155 and Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 152-152.
11 Mullen, Un-American, p. 155, John Munro, The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 192, and Horne, Black and Red, pp. 152, 183
12 Mullen, Un-American, p. 155 and John Munro, The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 192.
13 Howard Selsam to W.E.B. Du Bois, 27 April 1945 and Harold Collins to W.E.B. Du Bois, 18 November 1946, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and Gettleman, “The Lost World of United States Labor Education,” pp. 207-208 and David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009), p. 663, 671.
14 Doxey Wilkerson to W.E.B. Du Bois, 14 February 1949, and Doxey Wilkerson, W.E.B. Du Bois, 31 December 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
15 Doxey Wilkerson to W.E.B. Du Bois, 31 December 1952, W.E.B. Du Bois, “Background of African Liberation Struggles seminar syllabus,” 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois, “Background of African Liberation Struggles seminar preliminary reports and a discussion,” 9 February 1953, Blanket Letter to students from Doxey Wilkerson, 2 January 1953. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and Virginia Gardner, “Dr. Du Bois’s class studies a continent,” and Doxey Wilkerson, “Seminar on African Struggles,” The Daily Worker, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Box 269, Folder 2, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
16 W.E.B. Du Bois, Background of African Liberation Struggles seminar syllabus,” February 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and Virginia Gardner, “Dr. Du Bois’s class studies a continent,” The Daily Worker, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Box 269, Folder 2, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
17 “Africa: Britain’s Third Empire Flyer, 1949, and W.E.B. Du Bois, “As The Crow Flies,” 7 April 1950, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. There is some disagreement about whether Padmore left the CPUSA or was expelled. He claimed he left because the Communist International “liquidated” the Negro Trade Union Committee; Earl Browder, CPUSA head, said that Padmore was expelled because he advocated race war. See: Penny von Eschon, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 12.
18 Mullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, pp. 92-94
19 Doxey Wilkerson to W.E.B. Du Bois, 13 July 1953, and Doxey Wilkerson to W.E.B. Du Bois, 15 December 1952, W.E.B. Du Bois to Jefferson School of Social Science, 17 July 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
20 Howard Selsam, “Memorandum from Jefferson School of Social Science to W.E.B. Du Bois,” 15 September 1953, and Howard Selsam, “Circular Letter from Jefferson School of Social Science to W.E.B. Du Bois,” 15 September 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
21 Gettleman, “No Varsity Teams,” p. 348.
22 Schrecker, No Ivory Tower, pp. 4-5.
23 Jefferson School of Social Science, “Statement of American Educators,” June 1953, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
24 Jefferson School of Social Science, “Statement of American Educators.”
25 W.E.B. Du Bois, “Memo on my teaching at the Jefferson School,” 13 May 1954, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
26 Mullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, pp. 109-111 and W.E.B. Du Bois to Doxey Wilkerson, 28 December 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
27 Howard Selsam to W.E.B. Du Bois, 27 May 1954, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
28 Jefferson School of Social Science, “Southern Reconstruction: 1865 to 1880,” 28 July 1954, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
29 Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 195-198, 203-207, 224 and Doxey Wilkerson, “Seminar on African Struggles,” The Daily Worker, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Box 269, Folder 2, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
30 W.E.B. Du Bois, “Behold the Land,” Southern Negro Youth Congress, 1946, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
31 “Dr. Du Bois Honored by His Students,” The Daily Worker, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Box 269, Folder 2, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
32 Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day is Marching On: Memoirs of W.E.B. Du Bois (New York: The Third Press, 1971), pp. 212-213.
33 Doxey Wilkerson to W.E.B. Du Bois, 11 November 1952, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
34 Jefferson School of Social Science, “The Jefferson School of Social Science vs. The Attorney General of the United States and the Subversive Activities Control Board,” (1955), pp. 16-17, 19.
35 W.E.B. Du Bois, “History of the African Slave Trade,” Fall 1956 Syllabus, 1956, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
39 Howard Selsam to W.E.B. Du Bois, 27 November 1956, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
40 Munro, The Anticolonial Front, pp. 184, 192-194.