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Tannenbaum, Frank

Frank Tannenbaum was a labor leader, a social and political activist, an economist and criminologist, a specialist in race relations and prison reform, and a professor of Latin American history. He was born in Austria in 1893, immigrated to the United States in 1905, and died in New York in 1969. As a young man Tannenbaum became involved in one of the radical political groups that operated on the fringes of the bohemian movement centered in Greenwich Village. He associated with Emma Goldman and became active in the International Workers of the World (IWW). In early 1914 he assumed leadership of a mob of unemployed workers who began marching on lower Manhattan churches demanding food and shelter. After about ten days of relatively peaceful confrontations, his demonstrators clashed violently with the police and Tannenbaum was arrested and sentenced to a one year in prison.

After prison, with the help of warden Thomas Mott Osborne, Tannenbaum entered Columbia University, where he distinguished himself as an honor student and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation in 1921 he worked for a time as a correspondent for Survey magazine in Mexico, then served a tour in the U.S. Army during which he was stationed in the south. During his military service he became interested in race and its impact on the south and began a study that would result in two books on the African-American experience. After leaving the army he earned his Ph.D. in economics at the Brookings Institution with a dissertation on land reform in Mexico. He then spent several years in Mexico, conducting research on rural education and serving as an adviser to President Lázaro Cárdenas. In 1932 he returned to the United States to teach criminology at Cornell. He also helped devise the legislation that established Farm Security Administration, and in 1935 he joined the faculty at Columbia, ultimately becoming professor of Latin American history.

Tannenbaum's connection to the Harlem Renaissance centered on his groundbreaking study of race and racial violence in the south. This study, begun during his military service, resulted in his first book, Darker Phases of the South, published in 1924. Tannenbaum examined several aspects of southern life in his effort to uncover the explanation for the region's economic plight and its racial violence. He especially focused on the horrors and brutality endured by blacks in the southern penal system—the prisons, and especially the prison camps and the chain gangs—and the racial violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Avoiding emotionalism, he presented a starkly detailed description of the dehumanizing system of violence, which, he argued, dehumanized both the victim and the perpetrator. Tannenbaum did more than expose the worst abuses of racism. He also described the oppressed condition of white workers ensnared in the legalized peonage of the mill towns, company-owned towns in which all aspects of the workers' lives were controlled by their employers. It is this lack of hope and joy, shared by farm tenant and mill-town worker, that led to lynchings and provided members for the Klan. Racial violence, he suggested, was a temporary escape from the dull monotony of daily life for these oppressed whites; it also addressed the "underlying current of apprehension that the South will be outstripped in population by the colored as against the white. It is fear of losing grip upon the world, of losing caste, of losing control" (Tannenbaum 1924). Tannenbaum believed that the migration of blacks out of the south, and their replacement by European immigrants and labor conflict, might ultimately resolve racial conflict in the region and in the nation.

Tannenberg's image of the south was compatible with that presented by Walter White in his study of racial violence, and the work of other black novelists and poets. Tannenbaum's descriptions helped define the racial views of white liberals during the 1920s and 1930s. His work supported that of W. E. B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in their antilynching crusade of the 1920s. Two decades later Tannenbaum's views on racial issues, especially on the oppressive role of monotony in southern life, as well as his suggestion that the racial problem in the south might be solved if white southerners became distracted by labor problems and overrun with foreign immigrants, were cited by Gunnar Myrdal in his pathbreaking study, An American Dilemma.

Tannenbaum returned to the study of race in 1947 with Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. This was a pioneering study of comparative slavery by a white American scholar. He argued that greater intermarriage and the protective role of the Catholic church lessened the impact of race in Latin America. While more recent scholarship has challenged Tannenbaum's argument, his comparative approach inspired other historical studies of race and slavery such as those by Stanley Elkins, Eugene Genovese, and Herbert Klein.

Tannenbaum retired from Columbia in 1965, best-known for his work in Latin American history and the theory of criminology. His writings on race and slavery, surpassed by later scholarship, are much less known.


Frank Tannenbaum was born in Austria in 1893 and immigrated to the United States in 1905. He became active in International Workers of the World and spent a year in prison c. 1914 after a clash with the police during a labor demonstration. After his release he attended Columbia University, graduating in 1921; later he earned a Ph.D. in economics at the Brookings Institution. He served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in the south. He published Darker Phases of the South in 1924. He taught criminology at Cornell (1932) and Latin American history at Columbia (1935). He published Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas in 1947. Tannenbaum retired from Columbia in 1965 and died in New York in 1969.

Cary D. Wintz

See also: Antilynching Crusade; White, Walter

Further Reading

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life, Vol. 2. New York: Knopf, 1931.

Horsley, Carter B. "Dr. Frank Tannenbaum, 76, Dies; Organized Columbia Seminars." New York Times, 2 June 1969, p. 45.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York: Holt, 2000.

Tannenbaum, Frank. Darker Phases of the South. New York: Putnam, 1924.

---------. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York: Knopf, 1947.

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