In the summer of 1906, a team of social researchers led by W.E.B. DuBois embarked on a major study of the social and economic conditions in Lowndes County, Alabama. With funding from the Federal Bureau of Labor, the DuBois team scrupulously investigated land ownership, labor control, family life, education, sexual mores, morality, political activity, and other aspects of African American life. Two white federal employees simultaneously examined the political operations and sexual morality of Lowndes County whites, also analyzing property records and civil and criminal court records.
A major center of Black Life in Lowndes County during the period was the Calhoun Colored School. Although it was in many respects like many other institutions established for African Americans after the Civil War and operated largely on the industrial education principles of Booker T. Washington, the Calhoun School differed in one major respect: Not only did it offer training in basic academics and advanced vocational skills such as bricklaying and carpentry - the school eventually promoted a land ownership experiment, sponsoring land companies that purchased more than four thousand acres of cotton land, encouraged local blacks to operate the farms on a quasi-communal basis, and ultimately resold smaller tracts of land to African Americans.
For its time, the Bureau of Labor Study presented an ambitious and comprehensive portrait of the evolution of political, economic and racial dynamics of a Southern community. According to Blackmon, “[n]o social study on such a scale of research and ambition had ever been undertaken in the United States, certainly not one focused on black life and, even more so, never one attempted in the environment of overt physical danger that existed in Lowndes County. The report was completed, written by hand, and delivered to the Bureau of Labor for publication A year later, after months of pushing for publication of his research, or at the very least that the document be returned, DuBois was informed that the study’s conclusions 'touched on political matters.'" It could not be returned to him because it had been destroyed.
Nothing of what might have been a seminal study of black life survived, writes Blackmon, with one exception: Three years later, DuBois penned his first novel – The Quest for the Silver Fleece, “a richly descriptive portrait of African Americans struggling against the strictures tightening against them in the North and South.”
The story is set against a backdrop of persistent feudalism, sexual exploitation, and legalized kidnapping on a massive scale. Farm families live in near hopelessness while Southern landowners form a successful alliance with Northern industrialists, sometimes cornering the cotton market. Leading Northern and Southern philanthropists conspire to advance the cause of industrial education at the expense of liberal education (with its attendant notions of social equality). Leading political figures on the national level work to secure the African American vote with a small number of mid-level political appointments.
The novel’s central narrative derives from DuBois’ observations from his dangerous summer in Lowndes County. And at its heart are the lives of people who were brought together around an institution clearly modeled after the Calhoun School. These include the steadfast Sarah Smith, who wages a constant battle against reactionary forces to pursue a vision of progressive rural education; the wealthy and powerful Cresswell family, whose members routinely travel between the halls of Congress and the familiar plantation whose tenants are served by the school; and two former students – one who emigrated from Georgia in pursuit of an education, and another who was born in a nearby mysterious swamp – who join forces to lead their community toward a vision of self-sufficiency, economic cooperation and collective action.