Black History Month

The First Universal Races Conference

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.’

Universal Races Congress delegates, 1911

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:

  • To recommend to individuals of different races contacting one another courteous and respectful conduct and the study of customs and civilizations of other peoples. All civilizations have much to teach, and should be respected for their deep, historic roots.
  • To emphasize that differences in civilization do not connote either inferiority or superiority.
  • To point out the absurdity of the belief prevalent among peoples of the world that their customs, their civilization, and their physique are superior to those of other peoples, and to deprecate the looseness with which the term "race" is employed.
  • To urge the importance of providing in all lands a universal, efficient system of education – physical, intellectual, and moral – as a principal means of promoting cordial relations among all divisions of mankind.


    The impact of the congress lasted for many years, influencing its various attendees. One notable attendee, for example, was young solicitor Mohandas Gandhi.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1918.



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.

Sources

  • ‘New Historic Perspectives of the First Universal Races Congress of 1911’. Radical History Review. MARIO: The Radical Historians' Organization, Inc. 2005 (92): 99–102. Spring 2005. doi:10.1215/01636545-2005-92-99.
  • ‘Partial Speech by Du Bois’, Anonymous. 1911. ‘The First Universal Race Congress in London, England.’ The American Missionary, vol. 45, no. 9 (September): 323–324.
  • Jolly, Emma, A Guide to Tracing Your Family History Using the Census (Pen & Sword, 2020)
  • Pinar, William F. “The N.A.A.C.P. and the Struggle For Antilynching Legislation, 1897-1917.” Counterpoints, vol. 163, Peter Lang AG, 2001, pp. 623–82, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42977760.
  • Spiller, Gustov (ed.). Papers on Inter-racial Problems Communicated to the First Universal Races Congress. London: in London, P. S. King & Son and Boston, The World's Peace Foundation., p477.
  • Weatherly, Ulysses G. (1912). Small, Albion Woodbury; Faris, Ellsworth; Burgess, Ernest Watson (eds.). The American Journal of Sociology, Vol 17; The First Universal Races Congress. University of Chicago Press. pp. 315–328.
Notes and comments

Please contact Emma Jolly for more information about this article

Get Involved

Join today and become a member

As member you can make the most of our resources, access our experts and find a welcoming community of people interested in family history and genealogy.

We all have roots. Let’s find them together.

Keep up to date with news and events

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up today to receive regular updates including our monthly newsletter full of hints, tips and special offers. You can also choose to receive information on upcoming events, talks and lectures to help you discover your roots.

Thankyou! Please look out for an email from events@sog.org.uk to validate your email address, after which you'll be added to our Newsletter subscription.