Black Scholars & Thinkers Who Made Their Mark On Sociology

There are many scholars and thinkers from the African diaspora who have made significant contributions to the field of sociology. In honor of Black History Month, let’s get to know some of them in this two-part series that focuses on those whose lives have passed.

1. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797 in New York as Isabella Baumfree. After her emancipation in 1827, she became a traveling preacher under her new name, a noted abolitionist, and advocate for women’s suffrage.

Truth’s mark on sociology was made when she gave a now famous speech in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. Titled for the driving question she pursued in this speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, the transcript has become a staple of sociology, women’s studies, and courses on race. It is considered important to these fields because in it, Truth laid the groundwork for theories of intersectionality that would follow much later, as her question makes the point that she is not considered a woman because of her race. At the time this was an identity reserved solely for those with white skin. Following this speech she continued to work as an abolitionist, and later, an advocate for black rights.

She died in 1883.

2. Anna Julia Cooper was a writer, educator, and public speaker who lived from 1858 to 1964. Born into slavery in Raleigh, NC, she was the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate–a Ph.D. in history from University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924. Cooper is considered one of the most important scholars in US history, as her work is a staple of early American sociology, and is frequently taught in sociology, women’s studies, and race classes.

Her first and only published work, A Voice from the South, is considered one of the first articulations of black feminist thought in the US. In this work she focused on education for black girls and women as central to the progress of black people in the post-slavery era. In this book Cooper also critically addressed the realities ofracism and economic inequality faced by black people. Those wishing to learn more about Cooper’s life and her thought should see The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, which includes her book, essays, speeches, and letters.

3. W.E.B. DuBois, along with Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Harriet Martineau, is considered one of the founding thinkers of modern sociology.

Born free in 1868 in Massachusetts, DuBois would become the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard University (in sociology). DuBois worked as a professor at Wilberforce University, a researcher at University of Pennsylvania, and later, a professor at Atlanta University. He was a founding member of the NAACP. DuBois’s most notable sociological contributions include The Philadelphia Negro (1896), an in-depth study of the lives of African Americans based on in-person interviews and census data, which illustrated how social structure shapes the lives of individuals and communities; The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a beautifully written treatise on what it means to be black in the US and a demand for equal rights, in which DuBois gifted sociology with the deeply important concept of “double consciousness”; and, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935), a richly researched historical account and sociological analysis of the role of race and racism in dividing laborers in the Reconstruction south, who might otherwise have bonded as a common class, and thus laid the groundwork for the passage of Jim Crow laws and the creation of a black underclass without rights. Later in his life DuBois was investigated by the FBI for accusations of socialism due to his work with the Peace Information Center and his opposition to the use of nuclear weapons. He subsequently moved to Ghana in 1961, renounced his American citizenship, and died there in 1963. Today, DuBois’s work is taught across entry level and advanced sociology classes, and still widely cited in contemporary scholarship. His life’s work served as the inspiration for the creation of Souls, a critical journal of black politics, culture and society; and the American Sociological Association gives out an annual award for a career of distinguished scholarship in his honor.

4. Charles S. Johnson, 1893-1956, was an American sociologist and first black president of Fisk University, a historically black college. Born in Virginia, he earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, where he studied among the Chicago School. While in Chicago he worked as a researcher for the Urban League, and played a prominent role in the study and discussion of race relations in Chicago, compiled in The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. In his later career, Johnson focused his scholarship on a critical study of how legal, economic, and social forces work together to produce structural racial oppression. His notable works include The Negro in American Civilization (1930), Shadow of the Plantation (1934), and Growing up in the Black Belt (1940), among others. Today Johnson is remembered as an important early scholar of race and racism who helped establish critical sociological focus on these forces and processes. Every year the American Sociological Association gives an award to a sociologist whose work has made significant contributions to the fight for social justice and human rights for oppressed populations, which is named for Johnson, along with E. Franklin Frazier and Oliver Cromwell Cox. Readers interested in learning more about Jonson’s life and work can look to this biography.

5. E. Franklin Frazier was an American sociologist born in Baltimore, MD in 1894. He attended Howard University, then pursued graduate work at Clark University, and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, along with Charles S. Johnson (and Oliver Cromwell Cox). Prior to arriving in Chicago he was forced to leave Atlanta, where he had been teaching sociology at Morehouse College, after an angry white mob threatened him following the publication of his article “The Pathology of Race Prejudice.” Following his Ph.D. Frazier taught at Frisk University, then Howard University until his death in 1962. Frazier is known for works including The Negro Family in the United States (1939), an examination of the social forces which shaped the development of black families from slavery on, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1940; and Black Bourgeoisie (1957), which critically studied subservient values adopted by middle-class blacks in the US, among others. Frazier helped draft UNESCO’s post-WWII statement The Race Question, a response to the role that race played in the Holocaust; and, like DuBois, was vilified as a traitor by the US government for his work with the Council on African Affairs, and his activism for black civil rights.

6. Oliver Cromwell Cox was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 1901, and emigrated to the US in 1919.

He earned a bachelors degree at Northwestern University before pursuing a Masters in economics and a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago. Like Johnson and Frazier, Cox was a member of the Chicago School of sociology. However, he and Frazier had greatly differing views on racism and race relations. The hallmark of his thought and work was the idea that racism developed within the system of capitalism, and is motivated foremost by the drive to economically exploit people of color. His most notable work is Caste, Class and Race, published in 1948. It contained important critiques of the way both Robert Park (his teacher) and Gunnar Myrdal framed and analyzed race relations and racism.

Cox’s contributions were important to orienting sociology toward structural ways of seeing, studying, and analyzing racism in the US. From the mid-century on he taught at Lincoln University of Missouri, and later Wayne State University, until his death in 1974. Those who wish to get to know Cox’s life and work more closely should look to The Mind of Oliver C. Cox.

7. C.L.R. James was born under British colonization in Tunapuna, Trinidad and Tobago in 1901.


James was a fierce and formidable critic of, and activist against, colonialism and fascism; and a proponent of socialism as a way out of the inequities built into rule via capitalism and authoritarianism. He is well known among social scientists for his contributions to postcolonial scholarship and writing on subaltern subjects. He moved to England in 1932, where he got involved in Trotskyist politics, and launched an active career of socialist activism, writing pamphlets and essays, and playwriting. James lived a bit of a nomadic style through his adult live, spending time in Mexico with Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo in 1939; then lived in the US, England, and his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, before returning to England, where he lived until he died in 1989.

His contributions to social theory come from his nonfiction works, The Black Jacobins (1938) a history of the Haitian revolution, which was a successful overthrow of the French colonial dictatorship by black slaves (the most successful slave revolt in history); and Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx and Lenin (1948). Those interested in learning more about James and his work should visit The C.L.R. James Legacy Project, where much of his writing and interviews are archived.

8. John Gibbs St. Clair Drake, known simply as St. Clair Drake, was an American urban sociologist and anthropologist whose scholarship and activism focused on the racism and racial tensions of the mid-twentieth century. Born in Virginia in 1911, he first studied biology at Hampton Institute, then completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Drake then became one of the first black faculty members at Roosevelt University. After working there for twenty-three years, he left to found the African and African American Studies program Stanford. Drake was an activist for black civil rights and helped establish other black studies programs across the nation. Drake was also active as a member and proponent of the Pan-African movement, with a career-long interest in the global African diaspora, and served as head of the department of sociology at the University of Ghana from 1958 to 1961. His most notable and influential works include Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), a study of poverty, racial segregation, and racism in Chicago, co-authored with African American sociologist Horace R. Cayton, Jr., and considered one of the best works of urban sociology ever conducted in the US; and Black Folks Here and There, in two volumes (1987, 1990), in which is collected a massive amount of research that demonstrates that prejudice against black people began during the Hellenistic period in Greece, between 323 and 31 BC. Drake was awarded the Dubois-Johnson-Frazier award by the American Sociological Association in 1973 (now the Cox-Johnson-Frazier award), and the Bronislaw Malinowski Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1990. He died in Palo Alto, California in 1990, but his legacy lives on in a research center named for him at Roosevelt University, and in the St. Clair Drake Lectures hosted by Stanford. Those interested in learning more about Drake’s life and work can consult the New York Public Library’s digital archive dedicated to him.

9. James Baldwin was a prolific American writer, social critic, and activist against racism and for civil rights. He was born in Harlem, New York in 1924 and grew up there, before moving to Paris, France in 1948. Though he would return to the US to speak about and fight for black civil rights as a leader of the movement, he spent the majority of his older adult life in Saint-Paul de Vence, in the Provence region of southern France, where he died in 1987. Baldwin moved to France to escape the racist ideology and experiences that shaped his life in the US, after which his career as a writer flourished. Baldwin understood the connection between capitalism and racism, and as such was an advocate for socialism. He wrote plays, essays, novels, poetry, and non-fiction books, all of which are considered deeply valuable for their intellectual contributions to theorizing and critiquing racism, sexuality, and inequality. His most notable works include The Fire Next Time (1963); No Name in the Street (1972); The Devil Finds Work (1976); and Notes of a Native Son.

10. Frantz Fanon, born in Martinique in 1925 (then a French colony), was a physician and psychiatrist, as well as a philosopher, revolutionary, and writer. His medical practice focused on the psychopathology of colonization, and much of his writing relevant to social sciences dealt with the consequences of decolonization around the world. Fanon’s work is considered deeply important to post-colonial theory and studies, critical theory, and contemporary Marxism. As an activist, Fanon was involved in Algeria’s war for independence from France, and his writing has served as inspiration for populist and post-colonial movements around the world. As a student in Martinique, Fanon studied under the writer Aimé Césaire. He left Martinique during WWII as it was occupied by oppressive Vichy French naval forces and joined the Free French Forces in Dominica, after which he traveled to Europe and fought with the Allied forces. He returned briefly to Martinique after the war and completed a bachelor’s degree, but then returned to France to study medicine, psychiatry, and philosophy. His first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), was published while Fanon was living in France after completing his medical degrees, and is considered an important work for how it elaborates the psychological harm done to black people by colonization, including how colonization inculcates feelings of inadequacy and dependency. His most well-known book The Wretched of the Earth (1961), dictated while he was dying of leukemia, is a controversial treatise in which he argues that, because they are not viewed by the oppressor as human beings, colonized people are not limited by the rules that apply to humanity, and thus have a right to use violence as they fight for independence. Though some read this as advocating for violence, in fact it is more accurate to describe this work as a critique of the tactic of non-violence.

11. Audre Lorde, noted feminist, poet, and civil rights activist, was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants in 1934. Lorde attended Hunter College High School and completed her bachelor’s degree at Hunter College in 1959, and later a Master’s degree in library science at Columbia University. Later, Lorde became writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and following that, was an activist for the Afro-German movement in Berlin from 1984-1992. During her adult life Lorde married Edward Rollins, with whom she had two children, but later divorced and embraced her lesbian sexuality. Her experiences as a black lesbian mother were core to her writing, and made it important to theoretical discussions of the intersecting nature of race, class, gender, sexuality, and motherhood. Lorde used her experiences and perspective to craft important critiques of the whiteness, middle-class nature, and heteronormativity of feminism at the mid-twentieth century. She theorized that these aspects of feminism actually served to ensure the oppression of black women in the US, and expressed this view in an oft-taught speech that she delivered at a conference, titled, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” All of Lorde’s work is considered of value to social theory generally, but her most notable works in this regard include Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power (1981), in which she frames the erotic as a source of power for women, once it is no longer suppressed by society’s dominant ideology, and that it is necessary to do so to experience joy and thrill in all aspects of life; Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) is a collection of works on the many forms of oppression Lorde experienced in her life, and on the importance of embracing and learning from difference at a community level. Her book, The Cancer Journals, which chronicled her battle with the disease and the intersection of illness and black womanhood, won the 1981 Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. Lorde was the New York State Poet Laureate from 1991-1992; received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992;, and in 2001, Publishing Triangle created the Audre Lorde Award in honor of lesbian poetry. She died in 1992 in St. Croix.



Written by PH

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