The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

80 years before Nikole Hannah-Jones, another Howard professor ignited outrage

How controversy over the Federal Writers’ Project echoes today.

Nikole Hannah-Jones chose not to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after an extended fight over tenure. (John Minchillo/AP)

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 FWP workers photographed and documented historic buildings, catalogued unprocessed collections of historical documents, wrote in-depth travel guides for each of the 50 states and collected thousands of oral histories.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.

The guide notably included a biting essay entitled “The Negro in Washington,” authored by Brown, who was also the guide’s chief editor. The essay highlighted Black accomplishments in the Capitol City — such as the creation of long-standing churches, schools and other institutions — despite the racial injustices they faced throughout the city’s long and storied history.

“The Negro in Washington has no voice in government, is economically proscribed, and is segregated nearly as rigidly as in the southern cities he contemns,” Brown wrote. “He asks to be considered as a citizen. But fulfillment of this hope seems desperately remote.” It was a scathing indictment of American democracy.

But it was not Brown’s criticism of racial injustice that bothered Keefe.

Instead it was his inclusion of a historical anecdote that seemed to violate Keefe’s sense of propriety. As Monty Penkower relates in his classic study of the FWP, Keefe was incensed by Brown’s assertion about George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of President George Washington and father-in-law of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Brown reported that Custis had bequeathed a 17-acre tract of land in Arlington to “his black daughter, Mary Syphax” just before the Civil War.

Keefe proclaimed that such information “whether it be right or wrong” deserved “reproach and condemnation.” He was also irritated that Brown had ignored his numerous requests to provide evidence of Custis’s paternity of Syphax.

The fact that a Black scholar was in charge of the project no doubt troubled the congressman. However, it was Brown’s apparent indifference to Keefe’s concerns that really irked him.

But Brown felt no need to placate a rabble-rousing congressman like Keefe. He insisted that Custis’s relationship with an enslaved woman was common knowledge among Black Washingtonians. No member of the Custis family had refuted it.

Furthermore, Brown’s research assistant had compiled a dossier of sources from the Library of Congress, including interviews and newspaper clippings. Yet when the assistant returned to the library sometime later to review the materials, he was shocked to find that the folder had been “lost.”

Keefe’s efforts to suppress Syphax’s lineage echoes current measures aimed at silencing the history of slavery, racism and other uncomfortable topics in the nation’s schools and universities. Opponents are attacking anything they see as “critical race theory,” and arguing that U.S. history education is awash in “left-wing political propaganda.”

Like the Dies Committee in the 1930s, politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) believe the true story of American slavery should be “outlawed” and anyone teaching it “fired on the spot.”

Keefe no doubt would have liked to have seen Brown fired, but Brown’s White supervisors, namely Henry Alsberg, who headed the FWP, steadfastly supported him and others targeted by the Dies Committee. After being the subject of a lengthy FBI probe, Brown eventually was cleared of having any Communist sympathies or associations. He retired from Howard in 1969 to devote himself to his poetry.

As a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Brown’s literary legacy is well-established. His contribution to American history through his work for the FWP is less well-known. In addition to the D.C. guide that attracted Keefe’s ire, he supervised the collection of more than 2,000 interviews with formerly enslaved people in the late 1930s.

In preserving the voices of formerly enslaved people and documenting their diverse experiences, Brown hoped to lay the foundation for future generations of writers and scholars. It was, at times, an overwhelmingly difficult task. “The Old South lingers on,” Brown lamented in a 1937 letter to Alsberg.

But it is thanks to the FWP and its foundational work that today’s writers and historians have sources from which to craft the narrative of U.S. history with Black people’s experiences and voices at the heart of the story. Few have done so with more impact than Nikole Hannah-Jones and the “1619 Project.” Perhaps Sterling Brown would be relieved to find today that the Old South’s grip on the narrative of American history may finally be weakening.