From his leadership at Howard and through his prolific writings, Miller became a national figure in the debate on race in America.
Essayist, editor, publisher, educator. Miller was born on July 18 or 23, 1863, in Winnsboro, South Carolina, to Kelly Miller, Sr., a free black man, and Elizabeth Roberts, a slave. His father was a Confederate army veteran. Miller’s initial education was at a grammar school in Winnsboro. His considerable skill in mathematics drew the attention of Willard Richardson, a northern missionary. By 1878 Miller was attending Fairfield Institute, also in Winnsboro. Two years later he was awarded a scholarship to the preparatory department of Howard University in Washington, D.C.
After graduating from Howard in 1886, Miller studied sciences and mathematics with Captain Edgar Frisly, a British mathematician at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Through Frisly’s influence, Miller became the first African American to attend Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but financial considerations forced him to withdraw during his junior year. In 1890 he was appointed to a mathematics professorship at Howard University. He remained there throughout his professional career. He received his M.A. (1901) and LL.D. (1903) from Howard. On July 17, 1894, he married Annie May Butler of Baltimore. Their marriage produced five children.
Early in his career Miller was a professor of both mathematics and sociology, but he eventually chose to concentrate primarily on sociology, believing it to be an effective means to study race relations in America. In 1907 Miller was appointed dean of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. He remained an active teacher and administrator until his retirement in 1934. His influence on Howard University in the early twentieth century was such that the school was known to many as “Kelly Miller’s University.”
From his leadership at Howard and through his prolific writings, Miller became a national figure in the debate on race in America. Deemed by most to be a moderate and a harmonizer, he pursued a middle course between the accommodationist views of Booker T. Washington and the more radical stance of W. E. B. Du Bois. Miller agreed with Washington’s contention that agriculture was vital to southern blacks, and he did not oppose Washington’s emphasis on industrial education. Miller also supported Washington’s call for African American clergymen to promote higher education. But, like Du Bois, Miller felt that a liberal arts curriculum was vital for students drawn from the growing urban black population and that such a foundation was absolutely necessary for the creation and expansion of a black professional class of physicians, lawyers, and teachers. By 1912 Miller was actively assisting Du Bois with editing Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They became estranged in the 1930s, however, when Du Bois became closely associated with the American Communist Party. In contrast, Miller was an outspoken critic of Marxist ideology.
Throughout his career as an educator and spokesman for African Americans, Miller was a prolific author. He wrote numerous articles and pamphlets, many of which were open letters challenging the racial views of public figures. In 1913 he began his own journal, Kelly Miller’s Monographic Magazine. His 1917 pamphlet “The Disgrace of Democracy: An Open Letter to President Woodrow Wilson” sold more than 250,000 copies. His major monographs were Race Adjustment (1908), Out of the House of Bondage (1914), and The Everlasting Stain (1924).
Miller died at his Washington, D.C., home on December 29, 1939. He was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Washington. Miller was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1993.
Eisenberg, Bernard. “Kelly Miller: The Negro Leader as a Marginal Man.” Journal of Negro History 45 (July 1960): 182–97.
Meier, August. “The Racial and Educational Philosophy of Kelly Miller, 1895–1915.” Journal of Negro Education 29 (Spring 1960): 121–27.
Wright, W. D. “The Thought and Leadership of Kelly Miller.” Phylon 39 (June 1978): 180–92