City-born sociologist was early authority on black life in U.S.

WAY BACK WHEN

One scholar sees renewed interest in the life and work of Edward Franklin Frazier

Back story

February 04, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Edward Franklin Frazier, the Baltimore-born sociologist who had been chairman of the sociology department at Howard University and gained an international reputation as an authority on black life in the United States, seemed to fade into undeserved obscurity after his death in 1962.

During his time, he was a powerful voice and the author of such seminal works as The Negro Family in the United States, Race and Culture Contacts in the Modern World, Negro Youth at the Crossways: Their Personality Development in the Middle States and Black Bourgeoisie.

His prodigious output resulted in nine books and hundreds of scholarly articles.

Frazier, whose paternal grandfather was a slave, was born in 1894 and raised in the 1800 block of Druid Hill Ave.

He was 10 years old when his father, a bank messenger, died, and to help support his mother, two brothers and two sisters, Frazier sold newspapers before school and in the afternoon delivered groceries.

After graduating from the old Colored High School in 1912, he earned his bachelor's degree from Howard University in 1916, where he had fallen under the spell of W.E.B. Du Bois, sociologist, civil rights activist and author.

At Howard, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, developed an interest in socialism and protested U.S. entry into World War I.

Until attending Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where he earned a master's degree, Frazier had never attended school with white students. He earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1931.

"Even though he was born into a segregated world, he claimed every time he walked to school he spat on the walls of Johns Hopkins University (then at Eutaw Street and Druid Hill Avenue) because he knew he couldn't go there. His race-consciousness was aroused at an early age," said Anthony M. Platt, a professor emeritus in social work at California State University at Sacramento and author of E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered, published by Rutgers University Press in 1991.

Frazier held teaching assignments at Tuskegee Institute, Morehouse College and Fisk University before joining the Howard faculty in 1934.

"He was greatly influenced by the New Negro movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and the work of such people as Ralph Bunche, A. Phillip Randolph, Paul Robeson and Carl Van Vechten," Platt said.

"His first book [The Negro Family in Chicago, published in 1932] was an extraordinary contribution to American sociology. His ethnographics were innovative. He had interviewed and collected their families' stories at a time when that wasn't done," Platt said.

"He was also the first person to combat the notion that their African roots were the source of their social problems. He proved that the social problems facing African-Americans were American-made, such as poverty, dependency and crime, and they were not inherited from Africa," he said.

Frazier's observations could create disputes, even with fellow blacks, who accused him of being disloyal to his race.

He suggested that it was the sympathy of "white liberals" that kept the "Negro backward, inefficient and ignorant."

He wrote: "Unless you make him measure up to other people, unless you subject him to exactly the same criticisms as other people, he will never amount to anything."

In Black Bourgeoisie, first published in French in 1955, Frazier wrote that middle-class blacks had "status without substance" and they suffered from "nothingness because when Negroes attain middle-class status their lives generally lose both content and significance."

"He was an activist-intellectual who had been brought up with a sense of social justice that he had gotten from his father. He lived that way all of his life and was considered somebody who would stand up and fight for an issue," Platt said.

After race riots in New York City in 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named Frazier to direct his Commission on Conditions in Harlem. In 1948, Frazier was elected president of the American Sociological Society.

In 1949, he was named chairman of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Committee of Experts on Race, and was in Paris from 1951 to 1953 as chief of UNESCO's Applied Science Division.

At the time of Frazier's death, black nationalism was very strong and he was considered old-fashioned, but now there is renewed interest in his life and work, Platt said.

However, Frazier had grown increasingly disillusioned with America by the end of his life.

"In the end, he was alienated from the U.S., and left his very fine library to the University of Ghana," Platt said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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