A few weeks ago, we profiled Dorothy Porter Wesley, the premier librarian, and promised to do one on her scholarly husband, Dr. Charles H. Wesley.
It’s good we can get him in just as the curtain is descending on this year’s Black History Month because Wesley worked closely with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who conceived the monthlong celebration in 1926, when it was called Negro History Week.
Wesley’s long and productive association with Woodson began in 1916, three years after earning his master’s degree from Yale University, but his educational odyssey, which is studded with achievements, began as a youngster in Louisville, Ky., where he was born Dec. 2, 1891. At a very early age, he began cultivating a propensity for research and writing that first bloomed as a student at Fisk University, from which he graduated in 1911. As a top student, he was awarded a graduate fellowship to study at Yale.
An extremely energetic and curious scholar, Wesley, according to David Levering Lewis, in his definitive biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, noted that the young Wesley was at Madison Square Garden Aug. 3, 1920, to hear Marcus Garvey speak.
“I hadn’t heard anybody dramatize Africa in the way that Garvey had done it,” Wesley related more than 50 years later in Lewis’ book. “It would have appealed to Du Bois.”
In 1925, Wesley followed the distinguished Du Bois and Woodson as the third African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. Even more important for Wesley at that time was the future of Fisk University, which was facing a financial crisis. He immediately joined the campaign to save his alma mater, firing off a letter of intent and support to Du Bois.
With this out of the way, he focused on getting the final requirements to obtain a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, another accomplishment in his category of firsts for a Black American. This honor may have been awarded because of Wesley’s study of the Black fraternities, including Alpha Phi Alpha. He would write the fraternity’s history in 1929, creating a book that came two years after his first, “Negro Labor in the United States 1850-1925.” One of his main concerns was to demonstrate that Black workers possessed few skills and aspirations.
Hundreds of scholars have pored over this seminal work, including several contemporary students of labor. In her work on migration, Carole Marks cites Wesley on Southern workers. “Unskilled foundry workers in Alabama received $2.50 for a 10-hour day. The same workers in Illinois receive $3.20 per 10-hour day, to $4.25 per nine-hour day.”
In Pittsburgh, Wesley discovered that “while one plant’s output was reduced by 60 percent and white workmen were released, the entire Negro force was retained.” He presented a number of examples of labor disparity between Black and white workers, both in the North and South.
Historian John Hope Franklin amplified these findings by Wesley, noting in his study in Charleston that he “found free Blacks engaged in more than 50 occupations, many of them requiring a high degree of skill. Free Blacks worked in the building trades, made clothing and foods, operated machines and piloted ships. There were more than 70 occupations in North Carolina in which they were engaged.”
Few subjects of importance to or about Black Americans escaped Wesley’s boundless curiosity. His fastidious research and documentation was on par with Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and who launched the Journal of Negro History. In fact, Wesley, by 1950, the year of Woodson’s death, would follow his predecessor as president of the ASNLH and editor of the Journal of Negro History. But it was never a rivalry between them, and they collaborated on volumes of pace-setting books in African-American history. For years, their book, “The Negro in Our History,” was the premier work of its kind, paving the way for the work of John Hope Franklin and Lerone Bennett.
Along with his prodigious research, practically publishing a monograph a month, Wesley was also a highly regarded college administrator. From 1940 to 1942, he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and the Graduate School at Howard University. In 1942, he began his four-year tenure as president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. He had been offered the position in 1932, but he turned it down, much to the satisfaction of Du Bois, who, upon leaving the school, criticized its leadership. But he was effusive in his praise for the work Wesley did there when he finally took the position 10 years later. When the school became Central State College in 1947, he was chosen as president—a position he would hold until his retirement from the school in 1965. Retirement from Central State did not mean retirement from the academy because that same year he assumed duties as a professor of history at Howard University and served as director of the Afro-Americans Historical & Cultural Museum in Philadelphia in 1976.
Wesley supplemented his scholarly research in history with a study of religion, and he was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Of course, he wasn’t too busy to join Dorothy Porter Wesley in marital bliss, and they often combined their abilities on countless projects pertaining to Black social and political life.
Wesley died Aug. 16, 1987, at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., after a long illness from pneumonia. He was a 95.
To list his numerous articles and essays would be an endless task, but we should note his book, Neglected History,” appeared in 1965, and “Collapse of the Confederacy,” published in 1930, and reissued in 1968. In a memoir, Franklin wrote that Wesley had been denied an opportunity to use the subject of this book as his dissertation at Harvard, “the subject being deemed more appropriate for a white man.”
In the bibliography section at the end of Du Bois’ book “Black Reconstruction,” Wesley is listed among several notable historians that Du Bois praised for their accuracy on African-American history, particularly singling out Wesley for his landmark work on Black labor.