The history of black professional classicism has, so far, mainly focused on the isolated life stories of individual scholars. In my paper, I would like to shift our attention to their writings and trace an aspect of the larger movement’s intellectual development. It is my goal to point out how the first black classicists’ rhetoric swings from embracing Greek and Latin as measures of human ability to an increasingly overt subversion of this value system. It was black classicists from both ends of the political spectrum – most notably Daniel Barclay Williams and W. E. B. Du Bois – who perhaps unwittingly helped pave the way for the demise of their “brand” in the mid-twentieth century.
It has by now been well established that one of the initial incentives for African Americans to seek a classical education was to disprove racist misconceptions of their intellectual inferiority. As a result, assertions of academic accomplishments feature prominently in writings both on and by black classicists from the end of the Civil War to the brink of the Harlem Renaissance, when large numbers of blacks came to privilege their own heritage over that of the white master culture. Yet it has so far not been examined how these scholars helped lay the foundations for the value shift that brought about the “New Negroes” of the 1920s. This understudied second stage of black classicism started as early as the 1880s. Several African Americans had by then earned degrees in Greek and Latin and acquired a broad knowledge of the field. Some now used their learning to subvert the authority of the classics from within. Ironically, the most radical step was taken by D. B. Williams, who may have been the most staunchly conservative of the group. His 1883 publication The Negro Race: The Pioneers in Civilization accepts the authority of the classics, but goes on to argue that Greek and Roman culture descended from Egypt, which, in turn, received its civilizing impulse from Ancient Nubia. African culture thus came out on top over that of the former slaveholders. At the turn of the century, fellow classicist Du Bois picked up this rhetoric and later developed it in his Souls of Black Folk and as editor of The Crisis. The argument was strong enough to have an impact even on the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate of the late 20th century and laid some of the foundations for the black community’s rejection of white values during the inter-war years. As early as the 1890s, the shift of intellectual momentum was strong enough even for moderates like William Henry Crogman to come around to Du Bois’ push for immediate equality, renounce industrial training, and join the “American Negro Academy” along with, e.g., William Sanders Scarborough.
These scholars did not, of course, follow Du Bois after World War I, when he completed his turn away from the classics and started to prefer modern languages to the classics. As their beliefs were called into question, this generation of classicists went down with the ship that they had themselves helped sink. Yet the fact remains that their movement was far from stagnant in its intellectual development, and it ended just as the last of the line, Frank Snowden, achieved the scholarly fame they had all dreamed of since Emancipation.