Sitting Down with Our Du Bois Scholars: E. Howard Ashford
E. Howard Ashford: Du Bois and the Southern Experience
For E. Howard Ashford, research begins with one rule: “Study the condition of the people before you assume what the condition was.”
This tenet has guided him since he began studying history in earnest at age 11, when a school ancestry project piqued his curiosity about his family.
“I was intrigued as to how they lived under historical eras – slavery, Jim Crow – and it ballooned to me uncovering the history of the area of Mississippi in which I lived,” Ashford explained. “I researched and found that the records pertaining to black people did not fit with the narrative we were taught in school.”
What began as a self-professed hobby of historical scholarship ultimately led Ashford to three Master’s degrees and his current pursuit of a dual doctorate – part of which is in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“The Department of Afro-American Studies is heavily linked to the group here,” Ashford said of the Du Bois Center. “It is important for the department and students to be active supporters of what’s going on here.”
Ashford recalled some early visits to the Center with a class last spring, where his findings brought him full-circle.
“I was not aware that Du Bois had much contact with my state of Mississippi,” he recalled. “He was actively looking for statistics and data on black schools and voting in the early/late ’20s; it shows that he really did believe in learning what everyday people were experiencing… and it affirmed my own research that Du Bois didn’t assume about the South and black experience in the South; he wanted evidence to support what he wrote.”
Ashford is now analyzing this evidence – Du Bois’s documentation of both the historical and contemporary South – for a comparative study of the former Confederacy states in the 19th and 20th centuries, Understanding the Southern Experience: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Southern Investigation.
For Ashford, the discovery that he and Du Bois have adhered to the same research standards is both validating and motivational.
“Du Bois was trying to understand exactly the conditions before he wrote anything on the South,” said Ashford. “I found that inspiring as opposed to assumption research.”