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Thu Aug 22, 2019, 09:19 PM

When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist

There are too many juicy excerpts in this amazing story writing by Ian Frazier. As Frazier travels from the present to the past, he covers so much relevant and intriguingly evil content of the era that has not gone away. IMO, it's a long read but well worth it.

In March, 1929, the Chicago Forum Council, a cultural organization that included white and black members, announced the presentation of “One of the Greatest Debates Ever Held.” According to the Forum’s advertisement, the debate was to take place on Sunday, March 17th, at 3 p.m., in a large hall on South Wabash Avenue. The topic was “Shall the Negro Be Encouraged to Seek Cultural Equality?”

The Forum Council did not oversell its claim. The Du Bois-Stoddard debate turned out to be a singular event, as important in its way as Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon. The reason more people don’t know about it may be its asymmetry. The other historic matchups featured rivals who disagreed politically but wouldn’t have disputed their opponent’s right to exist.

Stoddard had to have known that the audience would be mostly black. Home-field advantage would be with Du Bois. Why did Stoddard agree? Like any author with books to sell, he probably thought he could use the publicity. (He had two new ones, “The Story of Youth” and “Luck: Your Silent Partner.”) Also, Stoddard probably believed that he could overawe any audience of blacks. He had denied being a member of the Ku Klux Klan but endorsed its tactics passionately in his books. And, in 1926, he gave a lecture before two thousand at Tuskegee University, in Alabama, informing them that the Nordic race was superior to nonwhites and that, for the good of all races, the world must continue to be governed by white supremacy. A black newspaper reported that the students “sat awestricken during the address, which terminated without any applause.”

The defining moment of the debate occurs as Stoddard describes how bi-racialism will provide each race with its own public sphere. The Forum Council later printed the debate in a small book, which records the moment when Stoddard said:

The more enlightened men of southern white America . . . are doing their best to see that separation shall not mean discrimination; that if the Negroes have separate schools, they shall be good schools; that if they have separate train accommodations, they shall have good accommodations. [laughter]

There is just that one bracketed word, “laughter.” The transcription is being polite.

As the reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American put it: A good-natured burst of laughter from all parts of the hall interrupted Mr. Stoddard when, in explaining his bi-racial theory and attempting to show that it did not mean discrimination, said that under such a system there would be the same kind of schools for Negroes, but separate, the same kind of railway coaches, but separate. . . . When the laughter had subsided, Mr. Stoddard, in a manner of mixed humility and courage, claimed that he could not see the joke. This brought more gales of laughter.


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