The Race Relations Department: A 1940s Interracial Think Tank. A Special Guest Blog by Chianta Dorsey

12 April 2016

History

This blog post has been written by guest blogger Chianta Dorsey, Reference Archivist at Amistad Research Center. The Amistad Research Center is involved in a project with Adam Matthew to digitize the records of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1943-1970. The project, Race Relations in America, is available now.

The Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries was created by the American Missionary Association Division in 1942 and was based at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The formal program of the department began in 1943 as a forum to engage in a national discussion regarding numerous topics including racial and ethnic relationships, economics, education, government policy, housing and employment. The RRD sought to define problem areas related to racial relationships in the United States, to design programs and techniques to promote constructive action, and to work toward relieving areas of tension. Many social scientists, religious leaders, educators, government officials, and other notable figures participated in the program.

The Race Relations Department (RRD) flourished in a post-World War II America, and was similar to what we currently identify as think tanks. One of the most successful components of the RRD was its yearly Race Relations Institutes, where participants introduced original research on various issues such as social justice, religion, independence movements, philosophy, etc. These studies were not solely American centric and not all participants originated from the United States. Prominent individuals who participated in the institute throughout its life included Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Rachel DuBois, William Faulkner, John Hope Franklin, and Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Announcement of the first Race Relations Institute, 1944. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction without permission prohibited.

The Race Relations Institute premiered in 1944, and its original members came from diverse racial, economic, and educational backgrounds. Some of the ideas presented would clash with our contemporary understandings of race and class. A perfect example of this was the essay written by Edwin Embree titled, “Races and Civilizations.” Embree, a white Yale graduate, had served on the boards of the Rockefeller and Rosenwald Foundations. His essay began with a superficial history of different world civilizations. His paper ended with a warning that if whites did not, “deal with the darker peoples as equals…they will rise up and wipe out white control.” Today, Embree’s broad reference of “the darker peoples” would be considered outdated and offensive, but in the 1940s such descriptors were widely circulated within academia. It’s interesting to wonder what Embree’s African American peers thought, or how they reacted to such language in his lecture.

Presenters also lectured on topics that would be considered relevant to modern times. In the speech titled, “Social Development of the Negro Child and Adolescent,” Allison Davis, an African American psychologist and University of Chicago graduate, discussed how the educational opportunities of African Americans were circumscribed by their socio-economic status. Additionally, Davis delved into the class hierarchies within African American communities, and revealed the intraracial divisions that occurred when lower and middle class blacks vied for employment. His research evoked stereotypical beliefs regarding the impoverished. He equated economic class with certain behaviors stating, “Low status people appear to have a culture of their own—the street and alley culture [of]…..fighting, stealing, sex freedom and other traits.” However, Davis’ work during his lifetime was extensive and his studies became the foundation of multicultural education. 

 

 

Program of evening lectures from the first Race Relations Institute, 1944. Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction without permission prohibited.

The records of the RRD can serve as a valuable resource to those studying the humanities and social sciences. The department played a key role in the removal of the issue of racial segregation and discrimination from the realm of social abstraction. Most importantly, the records document the progression of research on race in the United States during the early to mid 20th century.

For more information about Race Relations in America, including trial access and price enquires, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Chianta Dorsey

Chianta Dorsey

Chianta Dorsey is an Archivist who works in the department of reference, outreach and access services at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. She received a B.A. in History from Xavier University of Louisiana, and a M.A. in History, and a M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College in Boston, MA.

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