Color Line

In 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois penned the phrase: ‘‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’’ (Du Bois 1994 [1903]: 9). This thunderous statement, appearing in his classic text The Souls of Black Folk, served as Du Bois’s clarion call for the nation, grappling with tense and volatile relations between blacks and whites, to engage in objective and thorough research on black Americans. Research and propaganda on the color line would be Du Bois’s life’s work. Some of his book length treatments of the color line include his Harvard dissertation, Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, The Philadelphia Negro, and The Souls of Black Folk. While each of these books, in addition to the many articles he wrote on the subject, are considered classic works in the area of race, arguably, Du Bois’s most impressive and influential research on the color line consists of the investigations he spearheaded as the director of research at Atlanta University between 1897 and 1914.

In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois was chosen to lead the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, the term used to describe those engaged in sociological activity at Atlanta University between 1896 and 1924, by Atlanta University President Horace Bumstead. Several years prior to Du Bois’s appointment, the university institutionalized a program of research into the social, economic, and physical condition of black Americans. Upon completing research for The Philadelphia Negro, Du  Bois, who quickly became a sought after scholar, was providentially offered the position of director of research at Atlanta University. President Bumstead’s offer to lead the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory coalesced with Du Bois’s desire to develop a program of research on the  color line. According to Du Bois, ‘‘After I finished [The Philadelphia Negro], or before I finished it, the question with me was how this kind of study could be carried on and applied to the whole Negro problem in the US’’ (1961: 3). Du Bois ardently believed, at this point in his life, that the existing racial problems between blacks and whites resulted primarily from a lack of education and knowledge of basic facts concerning the other. Once people were educated and provided with accurate data concerning those on the opposite side of the color line, he believed that relations between blacks and whites would improve. In a 1961 interview, Du Bois discussed his desire to begin a large scale study of black Americans that would be housed at the member institutions whom we now refer to as the Ivy League. ‘‘What we needed was an academic study of the American Negro. I wanted the universities of Pennsylvania, and Harvard and Yale and so forth to go into a sort of partnership by which this kind of study could be forwarded. But of course they didn’t do anything at all. But Atlanta University, which was a Negro institution down in Atlanta, Georgia asked me to come down there and teach and take charge of some such study’’ (1961: 3).

When Du Bois arrived at Atlanta University two studies had already been conducted and a third planned. Of the 20 monographs published by the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory between 1896 and 1917, Du Bois spearheaded the preparation of 16. Notwithstanding his accomplishment prior to and after his tenure at Atlanta University, it can be argued that his most impressive sociological contributions to research on the color line were accomplished during this period. Three of the more significant studies led by Du Bois are highlighted below.

The  1900  study,  ‘‘The  College Bred Negro,’’ focused on black college graduates. This study is an important examination of the color line given the ideological sparring over the education of black Americans that was taking place between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. Notwithstanding a more elaborate analysis of the divisions between these giant scholars, Washington believed that black American independence should begin with an entrepreneurial foundation grounded in the vocational and technical, while Du Bois believed it should begin with holistic or liberal arts education. Washington also suggested that it would be very difficult for black college graduates in early twentieth century America to find gainful employment. Du Bois’s main conclusions in this investigation were that black American college graduates were gainfully employed and that there was a demand for college educated blacks.

The 1906 study, ‘‘The Health and Physique of the Negro American,’’ addressed the physical condition of black Americans vis a vis whites. During this era it was believed that there were physical and intellectual differences between blacks and whites and that blacks were inferior to whites in both areas. Through a collaborative effort with several black American medical professionals and 1,000 Hampton Institute undergraduate students, the major finding of this study debunked the widely held belief that there were physical differences between blacks and whites.

Last, the 1911 study, ‘‘The Common School and the Negro American,’’ focused on the condition of black public schools. Du Bois discovered that black schools were not receiving their fair share of state and federal funding. For example, one county in Georgia educated 3,165 black students and 1,044 white students. However, the level of state funding for each group was $4,509 and $10,678, respectively. In addition to uncovering disparities in school funding, Du Bois’s venture into the color line in education revealed that black teachers were being paid half as much as white teachers.

In summary, while much is known about Du Bois’s book-length treatments of the color line, such as the texts mentioned above, few are aware of the dense body of work he conducted on the color line at Atlanta University between 1896 and 1914. An examination of that body of work provides the earliest and most detailed information on the color line in the early twentieth century on topics including education, religion, crime, health, and business.


  1. Du Bois, E. B. (1961) W. E. B. Du Bois: A Recorded Autobiography. Folkway Records, New York.
  2. Du Bois, E. B. (1994 [1903]) The Souls of Black Folk. Dover, New York.

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