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Ralph Bunche Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1951. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109113).

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Bunche, Ralph Johnson (07 August 1904–09 December 1971), scholar and diplomat, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Fred Bunch, a barber, and Olive Agnes Johnson. His grandmother added an “e” to the family’s last name following a move to Los Angeles, California. Because his family moved frequently, Bunche attended a number of public schools before graduating first in his class from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1922. He majored in political science at the University of California, Southern Branch (now University of California at Los Angeles or UCLA). He graduated summa cum laude and served as class valedictorian in 1927. He continued his studies in political science at Harvard, receiving his M.A. in 1928, then taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., while working toward his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1930 he married Ruth Ethel Harris; they had three children. Bunche traveled to Europe and Africa researching his dissertation and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in February 1934....

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W. E. B. Du Bois Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42528).

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Du Bois, W. E. B. (23 February 1868–27 August 1963), African-American activist, historian, and sociologist, was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and Alfred Du Bois, a barber and itinerant laborer. In later life Du Bois made a close study of his family origins, weaving them rhetorically and conceptually—if not always accurately—into almost everything he wrote. Born in Haiti and descended from Bahamian mulatto slaves, Alfred Du Bois enlisted during the Civil War as a private in a New York regiment of the Union army but appears to have deserted shortly afterward. He also deserted the family less than two years after his son’s birth, leaving him to be reared by his mother and the extended Burghardt kin. Long resident in New England, the Burghardts descended from a freedman of Dutch slave origin who had fought briefly in the American Revolution. Under the care of his mother and her relatives, young Will Du Bois spent his entire childhood in that small western Massachusetts town, where probably fewer than two-score of the 4,000 inhabitants were African American. He received a classical, college preparatory education in Great Barrington’s racially integrated high school, from whence, in June 1884, he became the first African-American graduate. A precocious youth, Du Bois not only excelled in his high school studies but contributed numerous articles to two regional newspapers, the Springfield ...

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Niebuhr, Reinhold (21 June 1892–01 June 1971), theologian and political journalist, was born Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr in Wright City, Missouri, the son of Gustav Niebuhr, a German immigrant preacher, and Lydia Hosto, his parish assistant and organist. Reinhold grew up in Missouri and Illinois, where his father, a minister of the German Evangelical Synod of North America, had a series of parishes. From age ten he lived in Lincoln, Illinois, a heavily first- and second-generation German-American town, where his family lived, he later recalled, in “genteel poverty.” One of four children (and three sons), he was the apple of his father’s eye and decided as a boy to follow his father into the ministry. At age fifteen, having finished the ninth grade at Lincoln High School, he left for three years of boarding school at the Synod’s proseminary, Elmhurst College, outside of Chicago. In later years he much regretted having missed a solid high school education. Neither did he ever attend an undergraduate college. His lack of a B.A. degree, and his poor schooling in English, modern history, and the sciences, led him to condemn his church for giving only lip service to education. At age eighteen he enrolled at the Synod’s Eden Theological Seminary, outside of St. Louis, where he starred in debate and worked hard on his English writing skills. In 1913 he received the bachelor of divinity degree and was ordained a minister....

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Skaggs, William H. (16 September 1861–19 January 1947), businessman, mayor, reformer, and commentator, was born in the North Alabama town of Talladega, the son of James M. Skaggs, a wagonmaker, and Mary Smith Skaggs. The brilliant child of an unpretentious family, Skaggs had the great ambition of making an impact on the world of public affairs. A voracious reader from childhood, he soon developed an interest in government and history. Yet his first career was in business, and for a time he was remarkably successful....

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Villard, Oswald Garrison (13 March 1872–01 October 1949), journalist, author, and reformer, was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, the son of Henry Villard, a newspaper correspondent, and Fanny Garrison Villard. When Villard was born, his parents were sojourning abroad for his father’s health. The family soon returned to the United States, lived briefly in Boston, and moved to New York City in 1876. After attending the James Herbert Morse private school in New York, Villard entered Harvard University in 1889, earning his A.B. in 1893. He traveled in Europe for a year with his father, who by this time had bought control of the ...