DCSS History

The Beginnings of the DCSS

Reported in “News and Notes” of the American Journal of Sociology in 1934

The charter of the District of Columbia Chapter of the American Sociological Society was formally presented to the Chapter by Professor E. W. Burgess, President of the [American Sociological] Society, at a dinner meeting in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1934.  

In presenting the charter, Professor Burgess observed that in many respects the Washington Chapter was national in character, and he issued a charge to the membership to perform the unique functions in stimulating and guiding sociological research which such a chapter might perform. Dr. Stuart A. Rice responded to the charge by reviewing the sociological functions of a number of federal departments and agencies. Professor Burgess was elected an honorary charter member by the forty-two charter members present.

The meeting was opened by Professor D. W. Willard of George Washington University, under whose leadership as president pro tem the chapter was organized. He introduced the president, Dr. Stuart A. Rice, Assistant Director of the Census, who introduced in turn the following officers: vice-president, Professor D. W. Willard; secretary-treasurer, Frederick F. Stephan of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; and elected members of the Executive Committee, Elwood Street, Director of Public Welfare of the District of Columbia and Dr. Emma Winslow of the Children’s Bureau. The President also announced the appointment of a Program Committee with Dr. E. D. Tetreau of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as Chairman and a Committee on Research with Dr. Joseph Mayer of the Library of Congress as Chairman. Greetings to the new chapter were read from Jerome Davis, H. P. Fairchild, H. W. Odum, W. F. Ogburn, N. L. Sims, C. A. Ellwood, R. E. Park, James Q. Dealey, E. S. Bogardus, E. A. Ross, W. I. Thomas, H. A. Miller, and Geo. E. Vincent.

Source: “News and Notes” of the American Journal of Sociology 40(3) (1934): 370-371.

E. Franklin Frazier and DCSS

By Johanna Bockman, 2014-2016 DCSS President

In 1934, E. Franklin Frazier moved to Howard University and helped found the DCSS. Frazier was a founding member of the D.C. Sociological Society, serving as President of DCSS in 1943-44. Frazier also served as President of the Eastern Sociological Society in 1944-45. In 1948, Frazier was the first black to serve as President of the American Sociological Society (later renamed Association). His Presidential Address “Race Contacts and the Social Structure,” was presented at the organization’s annual meeting in Chicago in December 1948.

What was the DCSS like in the beginning?

By Johanna Bockman, 2014-2016 DCSS President

Two weeks ago, I became president of the DC Sociological Society. I had been wondering for a while why the DCSS had been founded in 1934 and what it was like at earlier times. So, I went to look at the papers of one of the founders and early presidents (1943-1944) of the DCSS, E. Franklin Frazier. Frazier was a sociology professor at Howard University and went on to be the first African American president of the American Sociological Association. He was one of the most important sociologists in the United States and likely around the world.

It was pretty exciting in the Howard University archives because fellow sociologist and world-renowned expert on international Black Power, Michael O. West, was there reading the Kwame Nkrumah papers. We talked a bit about E. Franklin Frazier, who worked with many international organizations, such as UNESCO, the African Studies Association, and the Council on African Affairs.

E. Franklin Frazier left two files of documents about the DCSS, which were primarily the agendas of the monthly meetings and the membership directories from the 1950s.(1) In the early 1950s, DCSS had around 200-275 members. Membership was $1. Dues were raised to $2 by 1960 ($1 for students). Paying your dues allowed you could vote in the DCSS elections. In general, the monthly meetings took place at different universities or government locations, such as the executive dining room at the US Department of Agriculture. At a meeting on March 30, 1961, current member Melvin L. Kohn (then National Institute of Mental Health, later Johns Hopkins U.) with Forest Linder (Public Health Service) presented “Reports on Some Current Research on Health” at Gallaudet.

From the agendas, it is clear that the DCSS was quite influential in government. During World War II and afterwards, governments around the world used sociology to manage populations and maintain social order. Sociologists worked hard at “obtaining a place for sociology at the federal feeding trough,” which led to massive involvement of military funders, in particular, in sociology and the movement of sociologists between government and university positions.(2) At the April 23, 1952 meeting, Paul M. Linebarger (Army Colonel, SAIS professor) gave the following talk: “Opportunities for Sociologists in Far Eastern Strategy: A Statement of the Need for Socio-Cultural Planning for Psychological Warfare.”

So, in the 1950s, Washington, DC, was THE place to be a sociologist. At the same time, E. Franklin Frazier and others criticized the direction that sociology was taking, which led to new directions in sociology by the 1960s. In 1953, the journal Social Problems also devoted an issue to “Challenges to the Freedom of Social Scientists,” which criticized sociologists’ dependence on government and especially military projects and their lack of professional autonomy. One of the articles referred specifically to Paul M. Linebarger’s work on psychological warfare.  At a dinner meeting on October 21, 1960, DCSS met at Caruso’s for cocktails, dinner, and a presentation by Phillip M. Hauser of the University of Chicago on “Lao Tze, Confucius, and the Presidential Election – Social Morphology as a Clue to Contemporary Politics” before the televised presidential debate at 10pm. Given that DC was a center for international Black Power and the civil rights movement, I hypothesize that Washington, DC, was THE place to a sociologist very different from those with US military funding.

Each May, The DCSS held an annual research institute or symposium. At these events, graduate students finishing their MA theses or their PhD dissertations presented their work. By the 1970s, DCSS had annual meetings that would last one to three days, which included faculty and other professional sociologists’ presentations. Here is the 1957 program for annual symposium:

DCSS Annual Symposium, May 11, 1957, Howard University

First Session, 10-11:20 a.m. Graduate student papers. Chair: E. Franklin Frazier.

Second Session, 11:30-12:50 p.m. Graduate student papers. Chair: E. Franklin Frazier.

Luncheon meeting, 1 p.m. Announcement of election for 1957-1958. Report of Secretary-Treasurer. 

Luncheon cafeteria style. Luncheon address by Talcott Parsons.

Yes, probably the most famous sociologist of the 1950s, Talcott Parsons, gave the luncheon address. Most sociologists today do not follow in the tradition of Parsons, but at the time he was quite a guest to have. Who would you invite to DCSS events today? What should DCSS become today?

Works Cited (1) Howard University Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, E. Franklin Frazier papers, Box 131-30, Files 20 and 21 “District of Columbia Sociological Society.” (2) George Steinmetz, “American Sociology before and after World War II,” p. 343-344.

Why has Mel Kohn been a DCSS member for over 60 years?

By Johanna Bockman, DCSS President, 2014-2016

Introduction: I saw that current DC Sociological Society member, Melvin Kohn, gave a DCSS presentation on March 30, 1961 titled “Reports on Some Current Research on Health,” so I decided to interview him about the DCSS. The interview was a lot of fun and provided much insight into DCSS. Professor Kohn received his PhD from Cornell University in 1952 and worked in the Laboratory of Socio-environmental Studies of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1952 to 1985, serving as chief of that laboratory from 1960 on. In 1985, he became professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

JB: Why did you become a member?

MK: I came to DC in 1952, just two days after getting my PhD from Cornell. I became a member of DCSS soon after arriving. My NIMH colleagues probably told me about DCSS. I was eager to use my research skills in a job. I had taken an introduction to sociology course at Cornell with John Clausen. John Clausen had joined the newly created NIMH and was hiring staff.

JB: What was DCSS like then?

MK: It was a fabulous experience to be a member of the DCSS. The meetings were close to once per month. The DCSS rivaled any other professional association. There were academics and non-academics. They had wonderful discussions on many topics. I just loved them all. It has been a wonderful series of experiences from 1952 to the present. I had one event that almost changed my life, and it did change a paper I wrote. I presented a paper at the DCSS and got my ass handed to me. The audience was perplexed by what I was trying to do in the paper. I was trying to make sense of Karl Marx and using data on men employed in civilian occupations in the United States. They saw that I was floundering and gave me hell. I went home exhilarated and tossed my paper in the trash. I knew what to do. I rewrote it and sent it to AJS, which published it. This was not atypical of my experience at DCSS. This was really characteristic of DCSS.

JB: In your view, how are ASA and DCSS different?

MK: I was president of ASA [1986-1987]. I was leaving NIMH because I didn’t get along with my boss, Ronald Reagan. Reagan hated sociology. He thought that sociologists were his ideological enemies, and we were. [Why?] Reagan was basically very reactionary and sought to do well for the well off and worked against the disadvantaged. He had backward looking policies. I wasn’t an officer of DCSS, but I was always involved. However, the meetings were all around town and often at inconvenient times for getting from Bethesda. I wished I had participated more. I was called on often to give advice, take part on DCSS roundtables, meet to discuss problems in DCSS, and I got an award from DCSS. I love the Easterns [Eastern Sociological Society] and still love them. I love the ASA. At ASA, I went to specific areas, areas I worked in and areas I wanted to learn about, but I was among sociological specialists. DCSS has sociologists from across the board, non-academics and very good academics. I learned from them. I learned things differently from DCSS than from my colleagues at NIMH and Johns Hopkins. DCSS filled a missing gap.

MK: You stepped into the breach after the incoming presidents moved away and someone had to bail out DCSS. Why did you do this?

JB: I also love ASA. And I find the past of DCSS very intriguing. Why did E. Franklin Frazier and others start the DCSS? I also enjoy talking with sociologists. They are always interesting. 

MK: We’re twins!

JB: What is your favorite story about DCSS?

MK: I told you already. [About your paper presentation?] Yes. How grateful can you be to DCSS.

Ed. note: Mel Kohn passed away in March of 2021. See "Memories of Mel Kohn" in the October 2021 issue of The Sociologist.

Why did Bobbie Spalter-Roth join DCCS over 30 years ago?

By Johanna Bockman, 2014-2016 DCSS President

Last week I met with Roberta Spalter-Roth to talk about DCSS. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology at American University and had once been the president of DCSS. For nearly 17 years, she worked at ASA, most importantly and famously as the Director of the Research and Development Department. She will continue as a Senior Research Fellow at ASA and will join me and my colleagues at George Mason University as an affiliate faculty member and Distinguished Research Fellow.

JB: When did you join the DCSS?

RSR: In 1982, when I was a grad student.

JB: Why did you become a member?

RSR: My advisor Muriel Cantor made me join. It is what sociologists did. Good sociology citizens did stuff for the discipline. Muriel Cantor was also DCSS president. DCSS also provided disciplinary socialization. Joining DCSS, like joining ASA, was part of your socialization. It is what you did.

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