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Monroe Nathan Work

Justin A. Rudder, Montgomery, Alabama
Civil rights activist and sociologist Monroe Nathan Work (1866–1945) is often described by scholars as a "quiet crusader" during the early twentieth century. His ideas were among the most important in improving the lives of African Americans in Alabama and throughout the nation at a time when Jim Crow laws were becoming harsher and more common. Work greatly influenced efforts to advance African American economic and political power in collaboration with W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and as founder of the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Macon County. There, Work helped create several important initiatives, including National Negro Health Week and the Negro Year Book and led efforts to end lynching in the United States.
Work was born in 1866 in Iredell County, North Carolina, to Alexander Work and Eliza Hobbs Work. His grandfather Henry Work was emancipated in North Carolina sometime before 1847, purchased a farm, and worked as a brick mason in Michigan. He later purchased freedom for his wife and 10 of his 13 children. Alexander Work was one of the children Henry Work left behind in North Carolina. He was eventually purchased by the Poston family in Iredell County and was married to the Poston's slave Eliza Hobbs. The couple would have 11 children, three of whom were born after Emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Shortly after Monroe's birth, Alexander purchased a mule team and moved to Cairo, Illinois, to work as a farmer and livestock trader. In 1867, Eliza Work and her children joined Alexander in Cairo.
Monroe Work began his elementary education in Cairo and completed it after his father moved the family again to a farm near Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1876. Work left school to help run the farm when his mother died and his father became an invalid and went to live with one of his married siblings. Work resumed his education at the high school in Arkansas City in 1889 and received his degree in 1892 at age 23. As an African American, Work found his employment opportunities limited so he enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1894.
Work's interest in mathematics and a deep concern regarding social inequality prompted him in 1898 to transfer to the newly established sociology department at the University of Chicago. There, Work began his long collaboration with scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, assisting him with his important 1898 essay "The Study of the Negro Problems" and publishing his own scholarship on discrimination and other social ills. Work graduated with a master's degree in sociology in 1903 and took an instructor position at Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (present-day Savannah State University). He also studied the socioeconomic conditions of African American communities and developed extension programs to assist African Americans around Charleston. His Savannah Men's Sunday Club, for instance, promoted better health, hygiene, and sanitation for African Americans and became a model for Negro Health Week. Monroe married Florence Hendrickson in Savannah on December 27, 1904. The couple would have no children who lived beyond infancy.
In early 1908, word of Work's accomplishments reached Booker T. Washington, founder and then president of the Tuskegee Institute. In June 1908, Work accepted an invitation from Washington to develop a Department for Records and Research at Tuskegee. The department would serve as both an archive and a think tank centered on African American culture and issues, as well as a center to promote better health and agricultural practices for African American farmers throughout Alabama's Black Belt region. Work also would provide authoritative data for and help write Washington's speeches and addresses.
The Department of Records and Research published two nationally circulated publications, the Negro Year Book and A Bibliography of the Negro in American and Africa, as well as regular data regarding the epidemic of lynching in the southeastern United States and the nation at large. The Negro Year Book arose out of Washington's request for a compilation of achievements by African Americans to mark the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913. With colleagues from the University of Chicago and Tuskegee, Work helped produce the first volume in 1912; its proceeds enabled the 1913 and 1914 editions to double in size and provide for honoraria to lure contributions by outside scholars. The 1914 book became so popular that national newspapers reprinted excerpts, and the Atlanta Conference on Education and Race Relations furnished copies to select high schools throughout the South. The success of the Negro Year Book provided funding for research and increased staffing at Tuskegee, particularly in Work's department. Though not always financially sustainable, eleven editions were published until 1952.
In 1914, Work and Washington established Negro Health Week, based on the concept first implemented by the Men's Sunday Club in Savannah, at Tuskegee to improve the health conditions of impoverished African Americans in the surrounding areas. In 1915, it became Health Improvement Week and later National Negro Health Week. Early on, Work's annual Health Week Bulletin proposed goals, suggested daily activities, and urged the involvement of local health organizations and influential church, school, and business leaders to help promote and facilitate activities. Efforts ranged from education about sanitizing water and food supplies to providing health screenings and vaccinations in local schools. By 1924, the death rate for African Americans had dropped much more than that of whites, and five years later, Work reported that the lifespan of African Americans had increased by two years. By the early 1930s, the federal Public Health Service had adopted and disseminated Work's model and hygiene publications for national circulation. National Negro Health Week would be observed annually until 1951.
Work used his position at Tuskegee to compile statistics on lynching in an effort to combat that scourge and by 1914 was sending semi-annual reports of lynching statistics to the Associated Press, the World Almanac, and leading African American newspapers. In 1922, he began sending the reports to more than 2,000 newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution and the Chattanooga Free Press. The reports were valued as being accurate and objective, unlike those from some sources in the North. Work's efforts also led to the establishment of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and drew the attention of the Southern Sociological Congress and the YMCA.
Work retired in 1938 and died at Tuskegee on May 2, 1945, leaving behind a significant legacy that was often overshadowed by figures like Washington and Du Bois. His activism not only had an effect in Tuskegee and the surrounding rural communities, but was important in promoting progressive ideals in African American communities and social reform and justice in modern American society. Furthermore, Work's Department of Records and Research was the foundation of the present-day Tuskegee University Archives, a leading repository for African American history.
Additional Resources
Guzman, Jessie P. "Monroe Nathan Work and his Contributions: Background and Preparation for Life's Career." Journal of Negro History 34 (October 1949): 428–61.
Jones, Allen W. "The Role of Tuskegee Institute in the Education of Black Farmers." Journal of Negro History 60 (April 1975): 252-67.
McMurry, Linda O. "A Black Intellectual in the New South: Monroe Nathan Work, 1866-1945." Phylon 41 (Fourth Quarter 1908): 333-44.
--- Recorder of the Black Experience: A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Work, Monroe Nathan. "The Negro Real Estate Owners of Chicago." Master's thesis, University of Chicago, 1903.
Published:  August 28, 2015   |   Last updated:  August 28, 2015