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Kelly Miller

(1863—1939)


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(1863–1939), educator, essayist, and sociologist.

The son of Kelly Miller, a free African American cotton farmer, and Elizabeth (Roberts), a slave, Kelly Miller was reared on a backcountry farm near Winnsboro, South Carolina, and attended Howard University and Johns Hopkins, where he studied physics and mathematics. He held jobs in the United States Pension Office and in the Washington, D. C., public schools before joining Howard's faculty in 1890.

While there he completed his AM (1901) and LLD (1903) degrees. He remained at his alma mater for forty-four years in a range of teaching and administrative positions, including professor of mathematics, chair of sociology, dean of the junior college, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. So closely identified with Howard that it was often known during his tenure as “Kelly Miller's University,”he helped to modernize its curriculum, to institute the systematic study of Negro life, to promote the hiring of African American faculty and administrators, and by the 1930s, to champion segregated education. Toward the end of his academic career, he came increasingly into conflict with his junior colleagues, who had been hired by Howard's first African American president, Mordecai Johnson. The scientific and theoretical methods of research pursued by these young professionals, who included Ralph Bunche, Sterling A. Brown, and E. Franklin Frazier, were, in Miller's view, at odds with his more personal emphasis on self-help and character building.

Equally active outside the university, he wrote an influential column circulated in more than one hundred newspapers across the country, assisted W. E. B. Du Bois as an editor of the Crisis magazine, and authored several important pamphlets, including “The Disgrace of Democracy: An Open Letter to President Woodrow Wilson” (1917), and a series of essays, some of which were compiled and published as books. The best of these include From Servitude to Service (1905), Race Adjustment (1908), Out of the House of Bondage (1917), and The Everlasting Stain (1924).

As a race leader, Miller was a philosophic moderate critical of both the militant agendas associated with the Niagara Movement (despite holding firm respect for the movement's leader, Du Bois) and the conservative views, especially on education, of Booker T. Washington. Calling for a measured, middle-of-the-road response to the “oppressive conditions”of African Americans, he observed in Race Adjustment that “no thoughtful Negro is satisfied with the present status of his race.”But as a pragmatist who sought progress through harmony, he held that African American advancement was a slow, if inevitable, process relying on black achievement and patience, middle-class virtue, economic development, and white goodwill. Later in his life, he was dismayed by the direction of American racial politics, which seemed to him to be driven by young radicals. In contrast to most African American intellectuals, he supported Roosevelt's New Deal, opposed organized labor, and spoke out strongly against African American migration to the urban industrial North, which challenged the roots of his agrarian values. Nonetheless, he will be remembered for typifying the African American intellectual elite of the early twentieth century.

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Subjects: Literature — United States History.


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