RECORDER OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE: A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work by Linda O. McMurry

RECORDER OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE: A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work

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In her signal biography of George Washington Carver (1981), North Carolina State U. historian McMurry laid the humble Peanut Man image to rest. Her subject here is even less prepossessing: black scholar/statistician/bibliographer Monroe Work (1866-1945). And, as with Carver, she makes his work interesting and meaningful, and gives the Booker T. Washington/Tuskegee strand of black self-advancement an honored place alongside the W.E.B. Du Bois/Niagara Movement strand of anti-discrimination protest. (""Men like Work,"" who was a colleague of both, ""did not find their choices so clear-cut or so mutually exclusive."") It was Work's particular contribution and vision--inspired by his own rise from poverty, by social gospel teachings at Chicago Theological Seminary and sociological/folk-cultural studies at the U. of Chicago--to challenge the premise of black inferiority, and thus to try to destroy the rationale for discrimination. Carter shows him going to Savannah, after college, at Du Bois' behest; founding a club of elite blacks to improve conditions for the masses and, through cultural programs, to highlight black achievements and inspire self-respect; witnessing the failure of protest to stop Jim Crow. . . and leaving for Tuskegee disillusioned (and redirected?), to head a new research bureau. Diligent and persistent, Work expanded his scope from collecting statistics on Tuskegee alumni to acquiring every kind of information about blacks, and classifying it into 98 categories, filed alphabetically by year. His files became a standard resource for government and academe, and (beginning in 1913, the 50th anniversary of emancipation) the basis of the Negro Year Book. Work had a related interest, then unusual, in Africa: the 17,000 references of his comprehensive bibliography (1928) include materials on early African history. With a Carnegie grant, he conducted a black migration study--""indicating that the pull of economic opportunity in the North was supplemented by the push of humiliation"" in the South. Carter cites this study, and others (notably his annual dossier on lynchings), to hold Work up as an activist in his own way: a sociological activist. Few will demur; despite a modicum of unnecessary special pleading, this is a firm study of a worthy life.

Pub Date: March 10th, 1985
Publisher: Louisiana State Univ. Press