1911 was an eventful year for historians and genealogists in London and the UK. Not only was this the year of the foundation of the Society of Genealogists, but it was also the occasion of the First Universal Races Congress.
From 26 to 29 July 1911, the Congress met at the University of London with the aim of challenging racism. 2,100 people attended from over 50 countries. An international group of speakers was invited by notable humanists, such as Gustav Spiller of the British Ethical Union, to discuss race relations and how to improve them. The focus was on creating a friendship and cooperation ‘where the representatives of the different races might meet each other face to face, and might, in friendly rivalry, further the cause of mutual trust and respect between the Occident and Orient, between the so-called "white" peoples and the so-called "colored" peoples.’
There was a clear need for improvement in race relations at this time. 1911 was a census year, and many of the senior figures in the administration of the census had a connection to the burgeoning eugenics movement. The growth in popularity of eugenics was linked to what was regarded as a high level of immigration at the time, particularly from Eastern Europe. Prime Minister Asquith’s wife sat on a committee for legalising eugenic sterilisation, and the Registrar General, Bernard Mallett, would go on to be president of the Eugenics Society (founded in 1907 by Francis Galton). In contrast to that way of thinking, the congress went ahead with 58 papers were presented, categorized into five groups:
1. Fundamental considerations
2. Conditions of progress
3. Problems of interracial economics and peaceful contact between civilizations
4. Conscience in relation to racial questions
5. Suggestions for promoting interracial relations
Amongst other conclusions, the congress resolved:
Among those speaking at the congress was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963), who presented his paper, ‘The Negro Race in the United States of America’. W. E. B. Du Bois was an African-American historian, scholar, sociologist, author, poet, and civil rights activist celebrated for his pioneering thought and contribution to the creation of the Pan-African movement. In 1909, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A few years after the congress, in 1915, he wrote an essay on ‘The African Roots of the War’ for The Atlantic Monthly, arguing that the Great War had been caused by the imperial scramble for Africa.
The Second Universal Races Congress was scheduled for Paris in 1914. After the war began in Europe, Du Bois tried to move the gathering to New York. However, he was unsuccessful and the event was cancelled. There would be no Second Congress, but many of those involved with the first conference went on to have notable influence in the worlds of academic history and sociology, politics, and civil rights activism.
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