Before Nikole Hannah-Jones, Howard U. Professor Sterling Brown was a Lightning Rod for Right-Wing OutrageRoundup
tags: African American history, radicalism, Federal Writers Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sterling Brown
Carole Emberton is associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo who specializes in the Civil War era.
The journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones recently decided to turn down the University of North Carolina’s belated offer of tenure and instead take a position at Howard University.
It is fitting that Hannah-Jones, whose Pulitzer-Prize winning “1619 Project” fueled controversy over how U.S. history is understood and taught, has ultimately chosen Howard, a historically Black university affectionately known by its alums as “The Mecca.”
This is not the first time Howard and its faculty have been at the center of a political firestorm over the writing of American history. In the late 1930s, Sterling Brown, a renowned poet and Howard professor, became the focus of a congressional inquiry over his work for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Like Hannah-Jones more than 80 years later, Brown also engendered political opposition and debate about what constitutes U.S. history when he tried to center the narrative on the diverse experiences of Black Americans.
On July 27, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the FWP as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FWP created a vast network of cultural projects to provide employment to as many as 10,000 out-of-work writers, teachers, librarians and historians during the Great Depression. FWP workers photographed and documented historic buildings, catalogued unprocessed collections of historical documents, wrote in-depth travel guides for each of the 50 states and collected thousands of oral histories. It was one of the largest government-funded history projects in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the project ignited controversy. Opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs lamented the cost to taxpayers and warned ominously that the FWP was a “hotbed” of Communist activity. Conservative Rep. Martin Dies Jr. (D-Tex.), head of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), railed incessantly against the FWP, dragging its administrators in front of Congress to testify about their supposed Communist affiliations and trying to censor or terminate various projects for their supposedly pro-labor bias.
In 1938, Dies’s colleague from Wisconsin, Frank Keefe, a Republican, turned his attention to the travel guide produced for Washington, D.C. Keefe charged the editors of the guide with “stimulating racial intolerance” and moved to have the offending portions removed from the volume.