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When W. E. B. Du Bois Opened a People’s College in Atlanta

When W. E. B. Du Bois returned to Atlanta University in 1934, following a 23-year run as the inaugural editor of The Crisis, he recruited a young sociologist to join him on the faculty. Ira De Augustine Reid, a Morehouse graduate ('22) who would go on to a stellar career in the academy, worked with Du Bois into the 1940s on several key initiatives. One was the launch of Phylon, the pioneering academic journal dedicated to cutting-edge scholarship on race and Black culture. Another was the establishment, in 1942, of the “People’s College” in Atlanta, which Reid formally directed. The People’s College sought to open college classrooms to interested adult learners, regardless of their prior level of educational attainment or ability to pay.  From a location at the downtown YMCA, Reid, Du Bois, and other Atlanta University professors offered pro bono evening classes on African history and civilization, English expression, art, economics, and a range of vocational skills. Students were encouraged to take an active role in shaping course content and the learning process.

Du Bois, for his part, had been interested in the idea of a people’s college for years.  Though his early defense of the “talented tenth” casts a long shadow over his vision for college education, by the onset of the Great Depression he had set forth a vision of the Black college as an institution that had to “grow down to the roots” rather than up to a sublimated leadership class. A decade earlier, in the mid 1920s, he had begun to explore ideas about a more popular alternative even to established Black colleges and universities, what he imagined as a “New Spirit College” for Black working people, a “politically active worker’s college.” 

This was the era of the progressive education movement in the United States. At the national level, John Dewey was the most prominent figure among a progressive group that forged the people’s college initiative from the tradition of Danish folk schools and the early socialist workers’ colleges. They imagined a community-based adult educational program that could strengthen the popular basis of American democracy. Du Bois, for his part, drew as much inspiration from the West African bush school, which, in its orientation toward the welfare and sustainability of the whole community, was, as he put it in 1933, very nearly a “perfect system of education.” 

While over 400 working people participated in the Atlanta People’s College, the initiative foundered in the 1940s.  But the idea of a people’s college rooted in the Black working-class would come roaring back in the late 1960s.  Our Spelman colleague Richard Benson has written about the People’s College in Nashville, which got started under Fisk University professor Charles S. Johnson in the 1930s but found revolutionary new life under Abdul Alkalimat (formerly Gerald McWorter) during the Black Power era.  In the late 1960s, the Nashville People’s College reorganized itself around a more explicitly political Black liberation curriculum.  As Benson notes, the initiative took off and had a profound impact on Black working-class politics throughout the 1970s before winding down into the Reagan years.

Benson recounts an old adage in Nashville that the People’s College of the 1930s “taught people how to read” while its later iteration taught “people what to read.” This may be a fitting characterization of the Nashville initiative. But such a stark generational contrast risks obscuring the radicalism of what Du Bois had in mind during his later years in Atlanta.

Consider that when Du Bois first broke from the NAACP and returned to the classroom during the Depression, the very first class he taught was a seminar on Marxism.  For years Du Bois had been thinking and occasionally writing about international political economy.  His underappreciated 1915 essay on the “African Roots of War” anticipated what would become V. I. Lenin’s highly influential theory of capitalist imperialism. But in the 1930s, in the throes of market crisis worldwide, Du Bois felt compelled to engage more carefully with Marx’s critique of political economy and to do so in dialogue with Black students in Atlanta. An exam question he posed: how might one rewrite the main argument of Das Kapital“in terms which a colored man of average intelligence could understand… and with application to the Negro problem in the US?”  

There is still an element of Du Boisian condescension in this question. But there is also something refreshing about what Du Bois is asking his students to do. This was not a seminar meant to train a few opportunists to work the system and get ahead. Du Bois wanted students to reflect on how best to engage Black working people in serious consideration of the structural inequalities and crisis tendencies endemic to global capitalism, past and present. He was, in essence, asking his students to embrace the spirit of the People’s College.

Recently the Chicago-based organizer Charlene Carruthers has written about how her work has been impacted by her belief that those around her, “no matter their level of formal education, can understand complex ideas and apply them to real life.” In her 2018 book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Freedom, she recounts a conversation with a stranger from her Chicago neighborhood who, as a crowd gathered after a shooting, commented that “the police are out here every day and they’re only here to protect these stores, this property, not the people.”  In a single sentence, Carruthers says, this random guy from her south side neighborhood perfectly summed up the structural interconnections between capitalist inequality, state violence, and anti-Black racism—what many at the highest levels of the academy refer to today as the theory of “racial capitalism.”  One could imagine this man’s remark becoming the basis of an expansive discussion in a people’s college classroom, or even the start of a great response to Du Bois’s exam question.

Etymologically, the term college implies “partnership,” “being with.” Can we imagine today a college that partners with the people, that stands in being with the people? Can we imagine a liberal arts curriculum (liberal arts—etymologically, an education for free or “liberated” people) that takes its cues from the very basis of democracy—the demos, the people? Can we imagine an educational agenda that goes beyond the important but narrow question of access, that raises more difficult and potentially transformational questions about access to what, and for what purpose? The need for such a democratic imagination was there in the 1930s and 40s. It was there in the 1960s and 70s.  And while it remains a steeply uphill battle in our neoliberal moment, the need is very clearly with us today.

Photo credit: The Atlanta People’s College, 1942 (AUC Woodruff Library Archives).

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Andrew J. Douglas is an associate professor of political science and faculty affiliate in Africana studies and international comparative labor studies.  He is the author of two books, including W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society, and is currently finishing a book-length project on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s economic theory (coauthored with Jared Loggins, Morehouse c/o 2015).