W.E.B. DuBois Institute: SEAT OF THE GATES EMPIREBy Ronald Roach
Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research is a research center that under the leadership of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is closely integrated with the operation of the Afro-American studies department. This seamless relationship between research center and academic department did not previously exist. Originally, the lingering controversy over the acceptance of an Afro-American studies department led university officials to maintain distance between the entities. Along with the Afro-American studies department, the Harvard faculty approved in 1969 the charter for a research center for African American studies. The center’s mission focused on its helping develop the Afro-American studies discipline by facilitating a pre- and postdoctoral Fellows program, working groups on academic and social issues, major research projects, conferences, publications, and lectures by prominent scholars. Six years after the launch of the Afro-American studies department, the Harvard administration, in 1975, finally got around to establishing the DuBois Institute. Faith Ruffins, the first administrator of the institute and now a historian at the Smithsonian Institution, says Harvard officials deliberately kept the institute away from the purview of the Afro-American studies department.“The institute was stripped from [Ewart Guinier’s] control,” Ruffins says, describing the institute’s launch. Ewart Guinier, a former labor organizer who had been appointed chair of the Afro-American studies department at its start, was well liked by Black students, but had incurred considerable opposition from Harvard faculty members, including tenured Black professors, Dr. Orlando Patterson and Dr. Martin Kilson.The institute had a board of directors, which would include Dr. Eileen Southern who chaired the Afro-American studies department in the late 1970s, according to Ruffins. Kilson and Patterson would also serve on the institute’s board. By the early 1980s, Harvard had lured Dr. Nathan Huggins, a Harvard Ph.D in history, to direct the institute. With Huggins, who also became chair of the Afro-American studies department, at the helm, the institute had some linkage to the academic program, but management of the entities remained separated.“Huggins opened up the DuBois Institute to attract more interest from the undergraduate community,” Ruffins says. After 1991, the year of Gates’ arrival at Harvard, the boundaries between the institute and department completely dissolved, according to Peter Glenshaw, the institute’s assistant director. Under Gates, the department and institute are now managed as one large enterprise, Glenshaw says. Public profile of the DuBois Institute has reached new heights over the past several years. Gates brought to the institute as well as launched a dazzling array of research projects and initiatives. These projects include the Black Periodical Literature Project, the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures in African American History, publication of the intellectual journal Transition, and the Image of the Black in Western Art Photo Archive. The Black Periodical Literature Project began at Yale University in 1980 by Gates, Dr. Charles T. Davis, and Dr. John Blassingame. This project has collected and annotated the short stories, poems, and literary criticism that appeared in African American periodicals from 1827, the date of the first publication of a Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, until 1940.The Image of the Black in Western Art Photo Archive spans nearly 5,000 years and documents virtually all forms of media. The archive project investigates how people of African descent have been perceived and represented in art.The DuBois Fellows program, one of the mainstays of the institute since 1975, continues to attract interest from scholars around the world. Since its launch, the DuBois Institute has selected and supported more than 200 scholars to conduct individual research in diverse fields within African and Afro-American studies.Under Gates, there’s been a deliberate effort to make the work of the institute have a public impact. “It’s crucial to our enterprise. The work we do can’t stay solely in the Ivory tower,” Glenshaw says.
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