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To those who regard the furtherance of International Good Will and Peace as the highest of all human interests, the occasion of the First Universal Races Congress opens a vista of almost boundless promise.

The First Universal Races Congress took place in London 26-29 July 1911: the first ever conference of its kind. The Congress sought to challenge racial divisions in the light of social and scientific understanding, pre-dating comparable efforts by international bodies such as UNESCO by four decades. Developed from an idea suggested by Felix Adler at a meeting of the International Union of Ethical Societies (a precursor of today’s Humanists International) in 1906, the Congress was principally organised by Gustav Spiller, drawing attendees from across the world.

From the earliest days of the Ethical movement internationalism had been a central principle, and humanist values of active anti-racism and universal cooperation were at the heart of organisers’ aims for the Congress. Its object was:

Principal delegates of the First Universal Races Congress, including Gustav Spiller (back row, far left)

to discuss, in the light of science and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between the so-called “white” and the so-called “colored” peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation.

The Congress boasted supporters from over 50 nations, with delegates from the fields of anthropology, sociology, law, and politics. Among its Vice-Presidents were future Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, and Ethical movement leader Stanton Coit.

Delegates at the First Universal Races Congress, 1911

The Congress was held at the Imperial Institute, and was made up of eight half-day sessions exploring aspects of race relations. Papers (circulated a month in advance) were taken as read, enabling days devoted entirely to discussion of the points raised. Recalling the Congress, Charles Alexander Eastman – a Santee Dakota physician ‘invited to represent the North American Indian’ – described what he felt was:

the perfect equality of the races, which formed the background of all the discussions. It was declared at the outset that there is no superior race, and no inferior.

Gustav Spiller himself emphasised the central need to make commonplace an understanding that people the world over were ’to all intents and purposes essentially equals in intellect, enterprise, morality and physique’. Felix Adler reported that ‘the ends of the earth came together for the purpose of considering how the antagonisms and antipathies that breed hate between different races might be lessened and eventually overcome.’

W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis, ‘Races Congress Number’, September 1911, showing the Congress’ seal, designed by Walter Crane

Writing in The Crisis (the organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), US delegate W.E.B. Du Bois – drawing on a pre-Congress questionnaire circulated by Spiller – outlined the major lessons of the ‘epoch-making’ volume of papers due to be widely published shortly thereafter. Among these were the resolutions that:

It is not legitimate to argue from differences in physical characteristics to differences in mental characteristics… The civilization of a people or race at any particular moment of time offers no index to its innate or inherited capacities… One ought to combat the irreconcilable contention prevalent among the various groups of mankind that their customs, their civilization, and their physique are superior to those of other groups… intimacy leads to a love of our own customs, and unfamiliarity… to dislike and contempt for others’ customs… Since… there is no fair proof of some races being substantially superior to others in inborn capacity, our moral standard, or the manner of treating others… should remain the same whatever people we are dealing with… Dignified and unostentatious conduct and deferential respect for the customs of others, provided these are not morally objectionable to an unprejudiced mind, should be recommended to all who come in passing or permanent contact with members of human groups that are unfamiliar to them.

Du Bois’ First Universal Races Congress membership card, 1911. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Unsurprisingly for a Congress arising in part from the First International Moral Education Congress three years earlier, and spearheaded by the Ethical movement, another central resolution was the belief that comprehensive and ‘dynamic’ teaching in schools, colleges, and universities would ‘powerfully assist the movement for a juster appreciation of peoples’. This was a call in particular to the scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists who might make these ideas mainstream.

Du Bois was described as being:

for the remainder of his life… incapable of discussing the Universal Races Congress without recourse to superlatives, always insisting that ‘it would have marked an epoch in the racial history of the world if it had not been for the World War.’

The Universal Races Congress was great because it marked the first time in the history of mankind when a world congress dared openly and explicitly to take its stand on the platform of human equality—the essential divinity of man.

W.E.B. Du Bois in The Crisis, September 1911

Nevertheless, with such progressive ambitions the Congress faced criticisms ‘that sentiment was more prominent than science,’ as well as complaints of ‘the prominence which freaks held in the proceedings’; one Times correspondent referred despairingly to ‘the men with long hair and the women with short hair’. Its participants, however, largely considered it a success. Even those highlighting perceived deficiencies could not help but note that those ‘few idealists, then denounced as cranks’ who had convened in Paris twenty years earlier to discuss international arbitration had ‘lived to see an actual Hague Tribunal’. As has since been argued:

here were characters of courage striving through whatever muddle to be more humane than the generality of men or even the generality of intellectuals in an age addicted consciously or otherwise to racist idioms and modes of explanation.

Michael D. Biddiss, ‘The Universal Races Congress of 1911’, in Race, Volume XIII, No. 1 (1971)
W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Du Bois was unequivocal:

Other world congresses there have been, and they have not dared to attack this problem openly and honestly. The Church has repeatedly dodged and temporized with race prejudice. The State has openly used it for conquest, murder and oppression… Here at last is a full fair frontal attack on the nastiest modern survival of ancient barbarism. It was a great day for humanity. It was a great day even in the light of the expected criticisms that the Congress accomplished nothing. It accomplished wonders. It met successfully in peace and concord and yet with unusual freedom of speech. It secured the co-operation of many of the leading people of the world and induced them to stand openly on its platform not simply of “Peace,” but of ”Good Will Toward All Men.” Finally it took steps toward the perfection of a world organization for interracial concord, investigation and co-operation. Every word uttered, every step taken by this Congress is in direct opposition to the dominant philosophy of race hatred…

As well as these overt challenges to prevailing racial ideologies, others saw ‘encouraging glimpses of a field of future usefulness for the Congress as the central co-ordinating body of a great nexus of effective peace-promoting agencies.’ The Congress suggested the formation of an ‘Association for the Promotion of Interracial Concord’. Spearheaded once again by Gustav Spiller (who acted as its Honorary Secretary), The World Conferences for Promoting Concord between All Divisions of Mankind was established to continue the work of the First Universal Races Congress. Though more were planned, the onset of the First World War in 1914 meant that the first conference was also the last. 

Report by W.E.B. Du Bois on the Congress, 1911. Department of Special Collections and
University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Notable participants, committee members, and supporters

Jane Addams, American activist, reformer, social worker, and author

Felix Adler, German-American professor, social reformer, and Ethical movement founder

Herbert Henry Asquith, then Prime Minister of the UK and a Vice President of the Congress

Arthur James Balfour, former Prime Minister of the UK (1902-1905) and a Vice President of the Congress

Franz Boas, German-born anthropologist

Edward Carpenter, English writer, poet, socialist, and activist for LGBT rights

Stanton Coit, American-born Ethical movement leader and suffragist

Charlotte Despard, Anglo-Irish suffragist, socialist, pacifist, and leader in the Women’s Freedom League

John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer

W. E. B. Du Bois, American historian, sociologist, and activist

Émile Durkheim, French sociologist

Charles Eastman, Santee Dakota physician, writer, and lecturer

Henri La Fontaine, Belgian lawyer and president of the International Peace Bureau

Alfred Fouillée, French philosopher

Alfred Hermann Fried, Austrian pacifist and journalist

Mohandas Gandhi, Indian lawyer and nationalist

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Indian political leader and social reformer

Archibald Grimké, American lawyer, journalist, activist, and leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Frances Hoggan, Welsh doctor

John Tengo Jabavu, South African activist and editor

Genchi Katō, Japanese religious scholar

João Batista de Lacerda, Brazilian physician and scientist

François Denys Légitime, Haitian general

James Ramsay MacDonald, British MP and first Labour Prime Minister of the UK

John Stuart Mackenzie, British philosopher and first President of the Union of Ethical Societies

Edwin D. Mead, American pacifist, writer, and social reformer

Felix Moscheles, English painter, writer, peace activist, and chairman of the International Arbitration and Peace Association

Anton Willem Nieuwenhuis, Dutch explorer and physician

John M. Robertson, British journalist and secularist

Walther Schücking, German politician

Brajendranath Seal, Bengali philosopher

Giuseppe Sergi, Italian anthropologist

Rıza Tevfik, Turkish philosopher, politician, and poet

Wu Tingfang, Chinese politician

Ferdinand Tönnies, German sociologist

H.G. Wells, English novelist, journalist, sociologist, and historian

Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, Polish inventor of the international language of Esperanto

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