One hundred and nine years ago, The New York Times ran a full-page overview of Franz Boas’s recently published book, The Mind of Primitive Man. [1] The headline read: “DOES THE WHITE RACE GIVE THE HIGHEST HUMAN TYPE?: As a Result of Recent Researches Prof. Boas Questions Current Beliefs in Racial Supremacy, Makes a Plea for the Negro and Tells Strange Facts in European Immigration.”[2] Above the handsome sketch of Boas were exaggerated profile portraits of “the Characteristic Round Jewish Head,” and “Characteristic Long Sicilian Head.” Coming on the heels of the media storm generated by Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1911),[3] this article provided added grist for the so-called Americanization movement whose sole purpose (at least that I can discern) was the consolidation of whiteness by assimilating the not quite white. The Times highlighted Boas’s research on how immigrants quickly became an “American type,” and underscored his arguments that there are no pure or superior races, and all can participate as citizens. The paper also described vital forms of government, thrift, skill, and complex military organization in pre-colonial Africa. The Times quoted Boas explaining, “the traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and social status. . . without falling back upon the theory of hereditary inferiority.”  Although pictures of “the Jewish” and “Sicilian” head are cringe-worthy today, many Americans would have found most of his findings against racial hierarchy not only repugnant, but profane.[4]

For example, two weeks prior, September 17, 1911, that same newspaper, The New York Times, interviewed the Governor of Georgia, Hoke Smith, whose state had just elected him Senator.  That Sunday headline read, “THE NEGRO IS THE SOUTH’S DRAWBACK.” [5] Smith confidently explained that to grasp the Negro problem, you must go back “to the Negro in Africa  – and see what has been done after thousands of years of opportunity in a country rich with possibilities. . . The negro was advanced from savagery to civilization during slavery – an enforced advancement to be sure, but an advancement. . . Despite the days of slavery, they have made more progress here than they have at home in freedom.” This lack of progress, Smith rationalized, is why “the enthusiasts of the East and North” are so wrong because they “believe that simply by educating the Negro’s character can be changed.” Pulling together tortured logic that seemed anachronistic until the White House recently resurrected it, he surmised, “it is a mistake for the negro to seek in any way to force himself into competition with the white man.”

Smith laid bare the rhetoric that fueled white supremacy, structured Dixie’s suffocating caste system, and justified industrial terrorism.  W. E. B. DuBois and Franz Boas would not let readers of The New York Times consume this Senator’s bile without a fight. It might be acceptable for the readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or the Times-Picayune but not their home-town newspaper.  Like tag-team pugilists, they gave Hoke Smith the one-two punch!


In the following Sunday’s paper, the Times ran a full-page article featuring the withering critique both brought to bear. The September 24, 1911 headline read “SCIENTISTS ANSWER HOKE SMITH’S ATTACK ON NEGROES. . . Professor Boas Tells of the Race’s Achievements in Africa.”[6]  Instead of profiles of immigrants, the newspaper displayed bronze sculptures from Benin, “Ancient Bambala Weaving,” intricate swords, and men forging iron. Boas began the interview, “I must say it is obvious that Mr. Smith does not know what he is talking about.” He continued, “along their own lines negroes in Africa have progressed far. Their industrial development is very high. Their pottery and wood carving are admirable, while their weaving compares favorably with the highest type anywhere. . . In metal work they are distinguished. It is probable, although of course it can not be proved, that the production of iron originated near the sources of the Nile among Negroes. Certainly the art of smelting was known to the Negro before it was understood by the most highly developed Europeans.” Recounting Yoruba proverbs and describing delicate filigree, complex states, laws, and diplomacy, Boas described modern and ancient Africa as full of progress, diversity, and vibrancy. The Times felt obligated to note: “Prof. Boas, who has no bias for or against, and is just a man of science with a desire for the truth, feels very strongly on the subject of the misrepresentation of the negro . . . so that what he says is nothing more nor less than careful scientific truth.”  Next up was DuBois, who had recently moved from Atlanta to NYC to run The Crisis magazine for the newly incorporated NAACP. He devastated Smith’s argument of progress with public records.


DuBois explained how wrong was Smith’s claim that the negro had “made no economic progress since slavery, but has, if anything, retrograded. This charge, fortunately, need not rest on a basis of mere opinion. There are incontrovertible facts of public record which may be appealed to.” [7] He unleashed a torrent of statistics derived from Georgia public records to deluge any doubt about Negro progress against all the odds. “In 1874, negroes had property that was assessed at $5,393,000. . . . by 1893 it had amounted to $14,960,000. . .to $30,000,000 in 1910.” He continued, “a very large part of this property is land. Three hundred and ninety six thousand acres owned in 1875 have expanded until today they hold over a million and a half acres.”  He concluded that “no one can deny the enormous advance in economic power which this accumulation of property represents.”  

One can almost feel DuBois’s exasperation as he rattles off the numbers to the reporter. “What now has the State of Georgia done to help this accumulation?. . . The white people of Georgia, through lynching and lawlessness and discrimination have done much toward discouraging the accumulation of property.” DuBois reminded his readers that “Hoke Smith himself in his celebrated campaign for the Governorship went throughout the state urging white people not to sell land to negroes and to neglect their schools.” Turning to the disparity of school funding, DuBois compared and contrasted tuition dollars. “The average tuition for a white child varies [between the counties] from $1.16 to $2.05. For the colored children from 66 to 78 cents. Georgia has almost equal numbers of white and colored school children. In 1909 the whites had 4,500 schools and the negroes 2,803. In these schools, there were 7,384 white teachers and 3,512 colored teachers.” Without further comment, DuBois sardonically quips, “The wonder is not that the negroes have not surpassed the whites, but that they make such a remarkable economic showing.”

This article was a devastating one-two punch to the Senator-elect’s articulation of white supremacy the previous week. This article, along with Boas’s subsequent full-page article in the next Sunday paper, October 1, caught the eye of the young Willis N. Huggins, who was a student at Columbia’s Teachers College. These articles moved him to write Franz Boas on October 16, 1911.

I have transcribed the letter in its entirety because Huggins seems so sincere and his gratitude so genuine.  

My Dear Dr. Boas,

Having read and studied your article in this Sunday Times of September 24th upon the ancient civilization of . . . African Races and your more recent article of October first upon “Human Types,” I take great pleasure in expressing to you my appreciation of such timely information you gave out concerning the initiative of self government for the race to which I belong has shown. I regarded your articles, not, merely as a retort or refutation of views recently given out by a distinguished Georgian but almost solely as this national [surgical] procedure from a friend of facts that none but an unbiased scientist and seeker after facts, could collect. I took pleasure in reading yours of September 24th to a gathering of young colored men in this local branch of the colored Y.M.C.A. and to a man those present voiced appreciation of your careful research and signal fair play. On behalf of these young men and also the great horde of young Negro men and women who have lined themselves up upon the side of law and order [e.g. against lynching and mob violence] in this country, I do most ardently thank you. This army of Negro youth who are daily struggling for education so as to be of greater service to his people have much to be grateful for in the products of your research. The thoughtful men and women of the race are at all times appreciative of the far reaching benefit your articles confer on us. With hope for abundant success in your quest for truth. 

I remain, very gratefully yours

Willis N Huggins[8]

Huggins would go on to earn a PhD from Fordham and publish an influential book called An Introduction to African Civilizations, with Main Currents in Ethiopian History (1937). [9] During the height of the New Negro movement, 1924, he got a job teaching at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn during the day and served as assistant principal of Harlem Union School in the evening.[10] Huggins was very involved in trying to teach and promote Black history. He served as President of the New York chapter of the Association of the Study of Negro History and the Blyden Society, also known as the Harlem History Club. Members included John Henrik Clarke, Joel A. Rogers, William Leo Hansbery, and Kwame Nkrumah, who spent summers in Harlem as a college student at Lincoln University, PA.[11]

Close friends with both Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois, Huggins worked tirelessly to introduce Black American and African history into the public school system, though with little success. He returned to the YMCA, where he was the director of the Board for Research in African Civilization. There he organized elaborate lecture series such as “Contemporary problems in African history: A series of ten lectures,” starting in October 1936. Tragically, he died in 1941.[12]

There is no way to know what influence Boas had on Huggins, but he provides a glimpse into the perspective of “the army of Negro youth” 109 years ago. They indeed were glad to have Boas on their side in the struggle against white supremacy.       

[1] Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York: The McMillian Company, 1911).

[2]Does the White Race Give the Highest Human Type?: As a Result of Recent Researches Prof. Franz Boas Questions Current Beliefs in Racial Supremacy, Makes a Plea for the Negro and Tells Strange Facts in European Immigration,” The New York Times, October 1, 1911.

[3] Franz Boas, Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911).

[4] “Does the White Race…”

[5] Edward Marshall, “The Negro is the South’s Drawback, Says Hoke Smith: But, Adds the New Senator from Georgia, in Spite of the Burden Laid upon it by the Black Man’s Presence a Marvelous Agricultural New South Is Springing Triumphantly into Being,” The New York Times, September 17, 1911.

[6]Scientists Answer Hoke Smith’s Attack on Negroes: Produce Figures to Show Him Not Well Posted on Conditions in His Own State– Professor Boas Tells of the Race’s Achievements in Africa,” The New York Times, September 24, 1911.

[7] ibid.

[8] Willis N. Huggins, “Huggins, Willis N. to Boas,” October 16, 1911, Franz Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society.

[9] Willis N. Huggins, An Introduction to African Civilizations, with Main Currents in Ethiopian History (New York: Avon House, 1937); “Negro Educator Is Found Drowned: Dr. Willis N. Huggins, Honored by Fordham with Ph.D., Missing Since Dec. 23 Warned Wife by Letter, Sixth Member of Race to Get Post in City Schools Had an M.A. from Columbia,” The New York Times, July 19, 1941.

[10]Educator Willis N. Huggins Born,” African American Registry, n.d.

[11] John Henrik Clarke, “The Influence of Arturo A. Schomburg on My Concept of Africana Studies,” Phylon 1992 49(1/2):4-9, 7.

[12] Willis N. Huggins, “Board for Research in African Civilization. Contemporary Problems in African History: A Series of Ten Lectures, ca. October 1936.,” n.d., W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

Lee D. Baker: contributions / website / / Duke University