Korey Garibaldi, Early Pragmatic and Philosophical Challenges to the Science of Jim Crow (Symposium) [2020 C4eJ 88]

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium | watch the workshop video]

Korey Garibaldi*

Some historians think that it is futile to search for historical parallels to the current global pandemic. This skepticism is, to a degree, merited. On the other hand, COVID-19 certainly doesn’t resist historicization altogether. The fact that black and brown communities have been so disproportionately affected by COVID-19 clearly has roots in the past. Indeed, numerous commentators have argued that the legacy of transatlantic slavery, the tenacity of Jim Crow, and countless other socio-economic inequalities stemming from racism, have exacerbated higher mortality risks for people of color in recent months.[1] Nevertheless, in my own efforts to examine the tenacity of social disparities in and beyond the U.S., investigating the role of contingency has been crucial for gaining a clearer sense of when, where and how our forebears challenged racist customs, and built popular and institutional support for racial equity. Indeed, nothing is foregone—or preordained—about how race and mortality operate and intersect in the twenty-first century. As painful as the current crisis is, things would be far worse if the majority of highly educated whites still believed in, and defended, so-called “white supremacy.” Reading primary and secondary accounts penned and preserved by W.E.B. Du Bois has led me to realize how important it was for intellectuals from all backgrounds to contribute to challenging this tenacious mode of racial prejudice.


In 1895, when Du Bois became the first black student to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, the university had been preparing for this achievement for decades. The timing of those nineteenth century contributions that made space for African American students at Harvard could not have been more different from most of the university’s elite peers. For instance, it was not until 1947 that Princeton granted its first degree to a black student. In both the social sciences and the medical field, several students and faculty affiliated with Harvard University began the process of desegregating the university following the Civil War. In 1948, Du Bois explained: “In the days before the Civil War, Princeton was a mecca for Southern students. They shied away from Harvard, not because Harvard had so many colored students, but because of the New England atmosphere both there and at Yale. But at Princeton in New Jersey they were supreme.”[2] The “New England atmosphere” Du Bois was referring to on the eve of the 1950s was abolitionism. Those who pursued objectives associated with this movement in earnest following the Civil War believed that African Americans in particular deserved the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Canonical white intellectuals like Harvard’s William James, who was remarkably dedicated to mentoring black and Jewish students like Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Gertrude Stein, were outliers in committing to this work. However imperfect their efforts were, recovering the multi-racial idealism of their systemic challenges to racism has never been timelier.

Promoters of pluralism like James led his peers and mentees to think seriously about how individuals can and should challenge white supremacist habits and structures.[3] One black Harvard alumnus, Leslie Pinckney Hill, claimed in a poem dedicated to James published in 1921 that this antiracist scholar had “taught thousands how to think.”[4] Decades after James’s death, Alain Locke argued: “Ever since William James’s ardent and creative advocacy of it, pluralism has involved, explicitly or by implication, an antiauthoritarian principle. This is because James carried the pluralistic position definitely and perhaps permanently beyond the traditional metaphysical pluralism.”[5] Locke, an academic philosopher who is more commonly studied and celebrated in the twenty-first century as the dean of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, also observed at a “Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion” in 1942: “When William James inaugurated his all-out campaign against intellectual absolutism, though radical empiricism and pragmatism were his shield and buckler, his trusty right-arm sword, we should remember, was pluralism.”[6] If James and Locke had lived to weigh in on the realm of science in 2020, both men would undoubtedly have decried how regressive and exclusionary America’s fragmented healthcare system has become.

According to a recent report published in The New York Times, in the past fifteen years, approximately one hundred and seventy rural hospitals have closed.[7] This number is only a small percentage of the 6,146 hospitals in the United States. But as numerous recent reports have explained, because of the current crisis, many American hospitals are in dire need of cash.[8]In the first quarter of this year, about forty percent of this shortfall could be attributed to declines—the steepest since 1980—in the consumption (e.g. elective medical procedures and other non-urgent healthcare spending, cancelled due to the pandemic). As statistics like these suggest, an array of disparities are embedded in the design of America’s privatized, healthcare system, which has by and large operated on a competitive, business model since the late nineteenth century.[9] Whether or not policy makers are willing to seriously investigate how American preoccupations with free enterprise fuels the nation’s poor responses to COVID-19 remains an open question.


In a draft of a speech titled “Social Medicine” delivered to the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois in 1950, W.E.B. Du Bois lambasted the refusal of Americans to scrutinize dubious ideological commitments to “freedom” and free enterprise. Du Bois’s skepticism eerily anticipates our present moment:

Freedom, the American way of life; private initiative, free enterprise and democracy, are the slogans and catch words which are in familiar and constant use today. They appear axiomatic and self-interpreting at first sight: we want to be free: we want to go where we please, when we please and do what we please: we do not live to have policeman ordering us about or chairmen stopping us from talking or governments loading us with laws. We want to the right to make our own plans, plan our own lives, and set our own goals. We want all avenues of advancement and accomplishment open to us and kept open. We want a voice in our own government: we want to elect the officials whom we favor, and we want the way kept open to congress and the presidency. This is the American way of life. The difficulty with it is that it is not true, and cannot be true, and the sooner we face the facts we already know, the sooner we will talk like rational human beings and not like fools.[10]

As Du Bois’s reflections indicate, this elderly black scholar was lamenting the lack of coordinated medicine in the U.S., which required a high degree of individual and corporate responsibility. Seventy years later, these parallels seem uncanny.

Then, as now, private hospitals conduct business independent of the federal government. But in the twenty-first century, the federal state now pays for over fifty percent of healthcare expenditures (e.g. Medicare and Medicaid) provided by this segmented system.[11] Here it bears remembering that well over twenty-five million people in the U.S. are uninsured. And this number continues to grow at an alarming rate with the rise of unemployment. Back in 1950, Du Bois urged, “[w]hat we have got to accomplish through democracy is a better state, and that state has go to organize the demand for public service, not only in health, but in the procuring of justice, in the teaching in our schools […] in our literature and art,” and so on.[12]

In the twenty-first century, academics often equivocate on how much credit William James deserves for encouraging Du Bois’s lifelong commitments to racially-inclusive pragmatism. Yet Du Bois rarely if ever shirked from explaining how foundational James was to his social and intellectual development for the rest of his life. Political scientist Saladin Ambar has recently quoted Du Bois as assuring literary critic Arnold Rampersad that “the two most important people in my life were my mother and William James.”[13] Shortly after Du Bois graduated from Harvard in 1895, Gertrude Stein attested to how crucial of a lifeline James had been for her in a writing assignment for an undergraduate English course at Radcliffe. “Is life worth living? Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Prof. William James. He is truly a man among men; a scientist of force and originality embodying all that is strongest and worthiest in the scientific spirit.”[14] It was this “scientific spirit” that also ensured that Du Bois and Stein followed James’s advice in pursuing practical careers that directly benefitted disadvantaged groups (he dissuaded both young intellectuals from attempting to pursue careers in academic philosophy in the 1890s).

More specifically, James encouraged Stein to pursue a career as a medical doctor. Though overlooked, Stein’s experiences delivering black babies while enrolled in the John Hopkins Medical School after graduating from Radcliffe were at the center of “Melanctha” (1909), her novella-length story centered on a fraught romance between a mixed-race doctor and a mixed-race midwife. Stein’s attempts to challenge racial stereotypes with this fictional romance set in Baltimore have not withstood the test of time for literary critics like Daylanne K. English, who has argued that “Melanctha” reified white supremacist images and ideologies.[15] As important as clear-sighted critiques like these are, it also bears keeping in mind what contemporaries on both sides of the color line found revolutionary about Stein’s narrative. Though overlooked, Stein’s “Melanctha” was probably modeled, at least in part, after James’s racial awakening decades earlier, near the beginning of his own medical training. Back in 1865, James, was similarly gathering his thoughts in a manner that also challenged racial assumptions, just a year after enrolling in Harvard Medical School. In a letter to his family from Latin America, William informed them: “Almost everyone is a negro or negress, which words I perceive we don’t know the meaning of.”[16] This assertion may seem insignificant by our standards. But at the time, it represented an incredible break from Louis Agassiz, an enormously influential (and incredibly racist) scientist based at Harvard who James was traveling with, and apprenticing under.


William James’s father, Henry James Senior, was a wealthy, radical, utopian socialist, whose own father had immigrated from Ireland shortly after the American Revolution. Because of their humble origins, William and his siblings were taught that character was formed by primarily by circumstances rather than either someone’s will or “providence.” Summarizing his recently deceased father’s philosophies on mankind’s development and prospects in 1885, William recalled that Henry Senior “felt that the individual man, as such, is nothing, but owes all he is and has to the race nature he inherits, and to society into which he is born.” The year after James published this essay, Du Bois enrolled in Harvard College for his second undergraduate degree. Du Bois’s budding interests in philosophy from his first bachelor’s degree at Fisk University were central to his early encounter with James upon arriving at Harvard. Inevitably, this led him “squarely in the arms of William James of Harvard, for which God be praised.” Du Bois was well aware that the connection he forged with James was closely related to the re-emergence of abolitionist thought.

While racism was increased elsewhere in the U.S. following the fall of Reconstruction in 1877, the racial liberalism that flourished at Harvard up to the early 1920s was rooted in a transformation that began in the 1860s. This progress represented nothing short of a decisive break from the white supremacist policies governing Harvard prior to the Civil War. Martin Robinson Delany was the first black American to attend Harvard. Delany was a student at the University’s Medical School almost fifteen years before James was admitted into the same program. Somewhat tragically, back in 1850, Delany and two other black students were unceremoniously expelled from the Medical School less than two months after they had arrived on campus. By the time James was enrolled in the Medical School between 1864 and 1869, the racial climate at Harvard—at least in this professional program—had changed markedly.

Two of William’s black peers, Samuel Boyd and Charles Nathaniel Miller, received medical degrees from Harvard the year before his degree was conferred.[17] In 1889, The Boston Globe reported that an abolitionist professor at the Medical School, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, “once remarked” that Charles Nathaniel Miller had been “the brightest young man in the school for 15 years.”[18] In contrast, James struggled through his medical training, which he barely finished. (In fact, James never practiced medicine after receiving his degree in 1869, the year after Miller graduated from Harvard.) If Miller was as talented as Bowditch insisted, it would have been impossible for James to miss or ignore how astute and outstanding his black peer in the Medical School was.

A representative newspaper announcement of Miller’s postgraduate plans in 1868 reflects the abolitionist ideals that were often rejected as support for Jim Crow gained nationwide support after the turn of the century. “Dr. Charles N. Miller, a young colored man, who graduated in March last from the Medical School of Harvard University, has arrived in Baltimore, and proposes to establish himself as a physician to his race, or any others who may be disposed to call [on] his professional services.” As this statement makes plain, this Harvard-trained doctor did not plan to discriminate on the basis of color. His practice would be open to any and all patients who needed his care or counsel.[19]

Unfortunately, Miller’s name seems to have been relegated to obscure nineteenth century records. Close to one hundred years later, Miller and Samuel Boyd’s names and stories were entirely absent from the first comprehensive overview of the “black presence” at the university: Varieties of Black Experience at Harvard (1986). The title of this impressive compendium, of course, is a play on James’s most famous published text promoting cultural pluralism, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902).[20] In an address delivered to the Harvard Graduate School the year Varieties was published, James insisted: “The chronic fault of liberalism is its lack of speed & passion.” It was values like these, Henry Senior’s son regularly suggested, that Harvard needed to foster access and egalitarianism as counterweights to the snobbery and prejudice at his alma mater and elsewhere.

In or around 1925, when W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “Harvard and Democracy,” an unpublished essay protesting the recent rise of racial discrimination at Harvard, he opened the essay with a vignette recalling an old invitation he had received from James:

Yesterday, I was delving among old papers to see what the mice had eaten and left, when I came across a bit of note paper which I had long treasured. It was from Ninety-Five Irving Street, Cambridge [William James’s home]. I well remember that study: long, low and cheerful in its disorder; spacious so that the Master could walk to and fro in his nervous thinking and talking. The note invited ‘Dear Mr. Du Bois’ to a “philosophical supper” and it was written in his own hand and signed, “Yours truly, William James.”[21]

William’s note was surely one to cherish. James had sent Du Bois an invitation to have dinner on Valentine’s Day, on a weekend night.

Du Bois explained that decades earlier, James and a handful of his other white professors, had “stooped so generously to give me exceptional fellowship and contact, and helped me so abundantly to find myself.” As this account suggests, in the late 1880s, Du Bois was effectively benefitting from an established tradition of welcoming Harvard’s black students like Charles Nathaniel Miller, and acknowledging their exceptional intellectual contributions. Yet when Du Bois arrived at Harvard, he had no clue that scholars like William James and others would offer such a compelling rejoinder to white supremacist customs the young black student anticipated.

I was a crude, brown youth, deeply opinionated, painfully aware of my color and race […] I have often marveled as to why these teachers stooped so generously to give me exceptional fellowship and contact, and helped me so abundantly find myself. I had just come from a three years life in the South and had learned to accept the absolute division of this universe into black and white. I not only fiercely held no desire to cross the color lines but rather gloried in my isolation. And then these teachers of Harvard college lifted me to a larger world, so that groping, standing, walking, I began to trace new values in life and to see the thing which I called my “Problem,” less narrowly and more as a part of life.[22]

Records like these are critical for considering the intellectual history of racial pluralism, but have often remained marginalized since the late nineteenth century. Back in 1889, The Boston Globe cautioned: “There is no official record of colored students at Harvard. They are not indicated in the catalogue even by a dot.”[23] This declaration was combined with a list of black doctors and other students trained at Harvard. The fact that an unknown number of these African American scholars and professionals still remain unaccounted for is an eerie reminder of why deeper investigations of desegregationist impulses in U.S. histories of medicine are still sorely needed.

As far as James was concerned, two years before his death in 1910, the younger generation—irrespective of racial and ethnic heritage—was where he and other elderly scientific progressives needed to focus their energies. Accordingly, James informed a dear friend and colleague at Oxford, F. C. S. Schiller, just a few months before delivering that university’s Hibbert Lectures in 1908: “All that Humanism needs now is to make applications of itself to special problems. Get a school of youngsters at work. Refutations of error should be left to the rationalists alone. They are a stock function of that school.”[24] The mentorship and friendship James maintained for the rest of his life with Du Bois and Stein makes plan how capacious his conception of “youngsters” was. In 1908, Alain Locke had only been a Rhode Scholar at Oxford for a few months, and Schiller had already become his most important scholarly mentor by the time James arrived on campus to deliver his lengthy yet pragmatic series of Hibbert Lectures. Shortly after, James published these talks as A Pluralistic Universe (1909), his final book.


How might these vignettes help make sense of the current epidemic? James applied a rigorous, pragmatic conception of science to the fields of psychology and philosophy for over forty years. His influence on canonical black intellectuals and social scientists like Du Bois suggests what might be gained by prioritizing more robust, racially pluralist narratives of public health policies and science. Moreover, James’s life and career are crucial yet frequently overlooked model for scholars and medical practitioners considering when, where and how to challenge Jim Crow and other forms of racism in the twenty-first century. As the following observation from his correspondence with Schiller indicates, modest, clear-sighted commitments ensured James contributed to the dismantling of scientific racism up to his deathbed. “Inborn rationalists and inborn pragmatists will never convert each other. We shall look on them as spectral and they on us as trashy—irredeemably both! As far as the rising generation goes, why not simply express ourselves positively, and trust that the truer view quietly displaces the other.”[25]

*Korey Garibaldi is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at Notre Dame.

[1] See, for example, Damon Tweedy, Opinion: “Medical Schools Have Historically Been Wrong on Race,” New York Times, June 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/27/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-medicine-blackness.html?searchResultPosition=28

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, typed draft of Du Bois’s newspaper column, “The Winds of Time,” September 3, 1948, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries (hereafter DBP).

[3] For an overview of the James family and interracialism, see Korey Garibaldi, “Irish Heritage in the Literary Remains of Frank Yerby and Henry James,” MELUS 44.4 (Winter 2019), 122 – 146.

[4] Leslie Pinckney Hill, The Wings of Oppression (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1921), 61.

[5]  Alain Locke, “Pluralism and Ideological Peace,” in Leonard Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 96.

[6]  Alain Locke, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” in Ibid., 53.

[7] Sarah Kliff, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Nicholas Kulish, “Closed Hospitals Leave Rural Patients ‘Stranded’ as Coronavirus Spreads,” New York Times, April, 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/26/us/hospital-closures-west-virginia-ohio.html

[8] Sean Nicholson and David A. Asch, “Hospitals Need Cash. Health Insurers Have It,” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/hospitals-need-cash-health-insurers-have-it.

[9] Rosemary Stevens, In Sickness and in Wealth: American Hospitals in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1989)

[10] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Social medicine,” February 8, 1950, 1 – 2. DBP.

[11] For an overview of Medicare’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, see Vanessa Burrows and Barbara Berney, “Creating Equal Health Opportunity: How the Medical Civil Rights Movement and the Johnson Administration Desegregated U.S. Hospitals,” The Journal of American History 105.4 (March 2019), 885 – 911.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Quoted in Saladin Ambar, Du Bois and James and Harvard: The Challenges of Fraternal Pairings and Racial Theory,” The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 4 (2019), 368. The excerpted quote in Ambar’s essay is from William James scholar, Eugene Taylor, “Transcending the Veil: William James and W.E.B. Du Bois, 1888 – 1910,” Unpublished Paper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School.

[14] Quoted in Christopher Knight, The Patient Particulars: American Modernism and the Technique of Originality (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995), 226, fn. 13.

[15] Daylanne K. English, “Gertrude Stein and the Politics of Literary-Medical Experimentation,” Literature and Medicine 16.2 (1997), 188 – 209.

[16] Quoted in Nihad Farooq, Undisciplined: Science, Ethnography, and Personhood in the Americas, 1830 – 1940 (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 84.

[17] For details of Charles Nathaniel Miller’s war service and Harvard degree, see, Francis H. Brown, Harvard University in the War of 1861 – 1865: A Record of Services Rendered in the Army and Navy of the United States by the Graduates and Students of Harvard College and the Professional Schools (Boston: Cupples, Upham, and Co., 1886), 312.

[18] “Professor and Judge: Distinguished Colored Graduates of Harvard University,” The Boston Globe, October 26, 1889, 10.

[19] Untitled Announcement, Fall River Daily Evening News, June 18, 1868, 2.

[20] Seven years later, when a much-larger, revised edition of this study was published, the “experiences” of these men who likely attended the same lectures and other events that James did, were still missing. If Miller was as impressive as Bowditch reportedly claimed, it is highly unlikely that William James was unfamiliar his accomplishments. See Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience At Harvard and Radcliffe (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

[21] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Harvard and Democracy” (ca. 1925), DBP. 

[22] Ibid., 1.

[23] “Professor and Judge: Distinguished Colored Graduates of Harvard University,” The Boston Globe, October 26, 1889, 10.

[24] William James to F.C.S. Schiller, May 18, 1907, in The Letters of William James: Edited by His Son Henry James, Volume II (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920), 281 – 282.

[25] William James to F.C.S. Schiller, April 19, 1907, in Ibid., 270 – 272.