Race Harmony and Black Progress: Jack Woofter and the Interracial Cooperation Movement

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Founded by white males, the interracial cooperation movement flourished in the American South in the years before the New Deal. The movement sought local dialogue between the races, improvement of education, and reduction of interracial violence, tending the flame of white liberalism until the emergence of white activists in the 1930s and after. Thomas Jackson (Jack) Woofter Jr., a Georgia sociologist and an authority on American race relations, migration, rural development, population change, and social security, maintained an unshakable faith in the "effectiveness of cooperation rather than agitation." Race Harmony and Black Progress examines the movement and the tenacity of a man who epitomized its spirit and shortcomings. It probes the movement's connections with late 19th-century racial thought, Northern philanthropy, black education, state politics, the Du Bois-Washington controversy, the decline of lynching, the growth of the social sciences, and New Deal campaigns for social justice.

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1 Jack Woofter : The Education of a Southern Liberal

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Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1893, Thomas Jackson (“Jack”) Woofter Jr. was raised in an atmosphere of New South optimism about public education, economic regeneration, good roads, and the resurgence of the white middle class. An only child, with slight connections to the planter aristocracy in Georgia, he was part of the post-Populist generation that assumed responsibility for the modernization of the region and the consignment to history of feudal features of southern life.

His father, T. J. Woofter Sr., one of eight children of a West Virginian farm family distantly related to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, became a schoolteacher at the age of sixteen and was principal of a normal school at twenty-three. After studying law at the University of West Virginia, he crisscrossed the South as a teacher and superintendent until 1893, when he became a mathematics instructor at Mercer University in Macon. In 1897, he moved to Milledgeville, the old state capital about one hundred miles southeast of Atlanta, to teach psychology and philosophy at Georgia Normal and Industrial College. Having completed a PhD by summer study with the American School in Chicago, he joined the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens in 1903 as a professor of philosophy and education, specializing in rural schools and modern testing methods. He pushed for better funding for black normal schools and the admission of women to UGA, where a colleague described him as “congenial in association and conversation, [but] of rather solemn face”; his students called him “gloomy.” He was to play a key role in the academic and physical growth of UGA until the 1920s. An influential president of the Southern Education Council, he sat on the Georgia Board of Education from its creation in 1911 until 1919, a period of extensive reform. He was a Freemason, a Democrat, and a skilled fundraiser, securing money from the Georgia-born Wall Street banker George Foster Peabody and Governor M. Hoke Smith for several new projects. President Theodore Roosevelt commended him for persuading New South universities to undertake social and economic research and train reform-minded public officials.1 In 1904, he told the chancellor of UGA, “The University must furnish the constructive thinkers and leaders. No greater opportunity for genuine service is now open to the university.”2 And yet, as a Virginian Baptist who owned no land, T. J. Woofter Sr. remained a parvenu in Georgia.

 

2 Thomas Jesse Jones and Negro Education

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Education reform was the most freely debated aspect of southern race relations after 1910, but most educationists, philanthropists, and state officials concurred on the need to enhance cheap, practical, segregated schooling for black children. Michael Dennis, among others, has argued that the expansion of industrial education meshed with the models favored by progressive educators and politicians in the South for reasons of racial control and regional economic re-habilitation.1 From 1913 to 1916, Jack Woofter was to become centrally involved in an intensive examination of black education that was so loaded with cultural, pedagogical, and economic prescription that northern black activists denounced its authors, including Woofter, as purveyors of an unwarranted vocational curriculum designed to create a dependent laboring caste.

Through his father’s work as dean of education at the University of Georgia, Jack Woofter was familiar with arguments surrounding rural education reform in the South and the persistent inability of local, state, and private bodies to fulfill properly the responsibilities they assumed after 1900. He was aware that black schools generally offered a more basic education than white schools, and he probably attributed this to differences in the intellectual capacities of black students and the generally lower educational attainment of their teachers. Until he ventured into the meanest homes in Athens as a graduate student, he had little understanding of the scale and stultifying effects of black poverty, or the gulf between the lives of young white middle-class Georgians and their African American contemporaries. He learned more than he was able to articulate in Negroes of Athens, Georgia, and he was eager to do more for interracial cooperation, but he was completely unprepared for many of the sharper contrasts between black and white lives that he encountered in rural parts of the South as a Phelps-Stokes Fund investigator. His commitment to the idea of regional reform, his aptitude for research, and his appetite for hard, detailed work meant that he became a vital part of the enterprise that created Negro Education, a report that assumed immense significance in the growing tension between white liberals and radical black analysts of southern life.

 

3 Migration and War

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After three years as a Phelps-Stokes researcher, Woofter applied for graduate study at Columbia University, where the sociologists and statisticians in the Department of Social Science rivaled those at the University of Chicago. He knew that Thomas Jesse Jones’s career as a social scientist began with a PhD from Columbia, but his financial circumstances and the University of Georgia’s lack of accreditation for admission to advanced work hampered him. Relying on personal connections and favors, he secured a one-year fellowship at the American University in Washington, D.C., with references supplied by Jones and U.S. commissioner of education Philander P. Claxton, who sat on the university’s fellowships board. His $500 award for 1916–17 let him register for a probationary year in the graduate program at Columbia as a “Fellow of the American University,” before enrolling properly as a PhD student with an intended dissertation on “Negro Farm Life in Georgia.”1

Woofter’s work at Columbia was supervised by the eminent sociologist Franklin H. Giddings, who, like his colleagues in psychology, anthropology, and economics, favored rigorous statistical analysis and use of the Burroughs adding and listing machine. Giddings believed social behavior and adaptation derived from the “evolution of a consciousness of kind” that individuals shared with members of their own group; he also held that most social conflicts and inequalities stemmed from innate differences between groups and that those tensions were logical expressions of collective identity and preference.2 “Consciousness of kind,” he contended, led people to “manifest a dominant antipathy” toward “variations” from their type: “Fundamental identities or similarities of nature and purpose, of instinct and habit, of mental and moral qualities, of capacities and abilities, are recognized as factors in the struggle for existence. To the extent that safety and prosperity depend upon group cohesion and cooperation, they are seen to depend upon such conformity to type as may suffice to ensure the cohesion and to fulfill the cooperation.”3 The rationale that the New England–born Giddings provided for degrees of segregation of American racial and ethnic groups struck Woofter as persuasive and reassuring. Woofter detached himself from many aspects of orthodox southern thought, including the ideal of total racial separation, but he remained wedded throughout his life to the conviction that the races should not mix at the most intimate levels and that harmony was best preserved by Americans spending their social lives in homogenous company. Giddings’s elaboration of “consciousness of kind” appeared to rest on scientific investigation and reasoning, rather than the prejudice and bitterness that made Woofter uncomfortable in the South. As Giddings put it, “consciousness of kind” meant “that pleasurable state of mind which includes organic sympathy, the perception of resemblance, conscious or reflective sympathy, affection, and the desire for recognition.” Woofter could see that both black and white Americans might derive satisfaction and comfort from a separateness maintained for positive reasons and not imposed out of antipathy and suspicion. According to historian George M. Fredrickson, Giddings and the “pioneers of the new discipline of sociology” were reacting against unmodified social Darwinist concepts of competition; instead, “the new sociologists posited a social order based on co-operation, compromise, and cohesion,” while stressing basic differences between the cooperating groups.4 The interracial cooperation movement drew heavily on this point of view.

 

4 Will Alexander and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation

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Jack Woofter joined the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) on a temporary basis, but his commitment to the work in Atlanta was so clear that Anson Phelps Stokes let him stay. During the early 1920s, as the interracial cooperation movement became more conspicuous, Woofter found his second great mentor in the CIC’s Missouri-born cofounder and director, Will W. Alexander. A former Methodist minister, who worked in Tennessee before joining the YMCA’s War Work Council in 1917, Alexander came to rely on Woofter’s local knowledge and sangfroid, assigning him to special projects, involving him in key meetings, and entrusting him with increasingly important, and sometimes hazardous, missions.1

Woofter stayed for seven years with the organization that transformed the ambition and reach of white liberalism. He helped to change it from a religious initiative for lessening postwar local tensions into a regional campaign and education program against racial violence. He lobbied legislators; raised money; undertook research; published articles, handbooks, and a college textbook; liaised with the press and other campaigning bodies; assisted with the formation of the CIC’s nine original state committees and its county committees; dealt with city and state governments; protected victimized black farmers; exposed and confronted the activities of the Ku Klux Klan; and led the CIC’s successful fight against lynching, especially in Georgia.

 

5 Dorsey, Dyer, and Lynching

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Physically slight and carefully spoken, Jack Woofter was an unlikely adversary, and yet as secretary of the Georgia State Committee on Race Relations (GSCRR) he showed courage and determination. An acquaintance recalled him as “very quiet, rather blond, of medium height. His face was sensitive, the features delicate yet masculine. When the commission had board meetings, at Blue Ridge or elsewhere, he usually sat at the back of the room, slightly slouched down on his spine, with a perfect poker face. He was a southern gentleman who knew his way around in both the rural and urban South.”1 In 1922 and 1923, Woofter’s character was tested in a public disagreement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) over federal antilynching legislation and in the CIC’s attempts to defend black farmers in Georgia by prosecuting members of the Ku Klux Klan for night-riding.

In the fall of 1923, Woofter claimed the southern campaign against lynching was “a citizen’s fight” requiring no outside help, since only the states and their white electorates could solve the lynching problem and the disorder that it represented.2 He exchanged correspondence with the NAACP about the CIC’s work, but the positions of the two organizations on the prevention of lynching were irreconcilable. NAACP assistant secretary Walter White was convinced that the inability of most southern states to suppress mob violence required federal antilynching legislation, for which public opinion in northern and western states had to be mobilized. The CIC’s response was that a federal law would be unenforceable, unconstitutional, and counterproductive. Some black Americans concluded that this stance demonstrated the ineffectiveness of southern liberalism and that Woofter, personally, was an apologist for glacial change. The two politicians who most clearly represented the respective positions of Woofter and White were Hugh Manson Dorsey, a progressive Democrat who denounced racial violence during his second term as governor of Georgia, but opposed federal intervention, and Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican congressman from St. Louis, Missouri, who repeatedly sponsored a federal antilynching bill in the first half of the 1920s.

 

6 The Limits of Interracial Cooperation

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In february 1926, W. E. B. Du Bois told readers of the Crisis that the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) represented “the definite breaking up of the effort of the South to present morally and socially a solid front to the world.”1 He arrived at this judgment gradually, knowing that many equal-rights activists would disagree, and despite mixed signals regarding the interracial cooperation movement’s stand on segregation, black welfare, education, the vote, and lynching. Du Bois felt certain, at least, that the movement was more than a postwar reaction to migration, riots, and radicalism, and that it sincerely opposed the Klan and enjoyed the support of many southern black leaders; less clear were the movement’s democratic aims, its economic outlook, its ultimate social objectives, and its views on race itself. At the close of the decade, Du Bois would conclude with disappointment that, in fact, white southern liberals such as Jack Woofter were dishonest and incapable of leading real and lasting change.

 

7 Northern Money and Race Studies

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In march 1925, at the first National Interracial Conference in Cincinnati, Jack Woofter and Will Alexander discovered how ambivalently African Americans regarded the interracial cooperation movement. The conference was held under the auspices of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) and the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) and organized by black economist and social gospeler George E. Haynes, who ran the FCC’s Department of Race Relations. His co-chairmen were George C. Clement, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church bishop who led the FCC’s Commission on the Church and Race Relations (CCRR), and two white clergymen, CIC chairman M. Ashby Jones and the English-born president and cofounder of the FCC, S. Parkes Cadman. Other organizations represented at Cincinnati included the YMCA and the YWCA, along with sundry churches, public health associations, fraternal organizations, and student bodies. The Russell Sage Foundation also sent several delegates, including Mary van Kleeck, the New York social reformer who directed the foundation’s Department of Industrial Studies.1

 

8 Howard Odum and the Institute for Research in Social Science

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In 1913, Jack Woofter’s father, T. J. Woofter Sr., gave the sociologist Howard W. Odum a much-needed job in the school of education at the University of Georgia, where he stayed until 1918, gaining a reputation as an energetic scholar and administrator. After a brief tenure at his alma mater, Emory University, Odum moved to the University of North Carolina, where he repaid the favor by hiring Jack Woofter to work in the expanding Institute for Research in Social Science (IRSS) in 1927.

Odum and the younger Woofter both believed in the social scientist’s duty to secure definite facts about the “Negro problem” and accelerate the pace of change in the South, but Odum’s zeal resulted from a more profound conversion than any experienced by Woofter. They were both Methodists and the grandsons of slaveholders, but came from different generations and different Georgian settings. Odum was ten years older than Woofter and was brought up about fifteen miles from Athens, in a district with strained race relations, until his father acquired a new dairy farm thirty miles to the south, near Covington, in Newton County.1 After moving to Chapel Hill in 1920, Odum developed his vision of southern studies, but university administration initially occupied him as much as scholarship. He founded the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Welfare, began the liberal journal Social Forces, and fostered a collaborative research ethos. By 1927, he had edited a collection of biographical essays and coauthored three books about Negro songs and public welfare and was about to publish Man’s Quest for Social Guidance. 2 Over the next decade, he would play a leading part in cementing sociology as an academic discipline in the South and mount a challenge to the subject’s domination by the University of Chicago and Columbia University.3

 

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