Park, Robert Ezra, 1864-1944

Alternative names
Birth 1864-02-14
Death 1944-02-07

Biographical notes:

Sociologist. Ph. B., University of Michigan, 1887. Newspaper reporter in Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver, New York, and Chicago, 1887-1898. M.A., Harvard University, 1899. Ph. D., University of Heidelberg, 1904. Assistant in philosophy, Harvard University, 1904-1905. Secretary of the Congo Reform Association. Aide to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. Professorial lecturer on sociology, University of Chicago, 1915-1923; professor of sociology, 1923-1929. Lecturer, Fisk University, 1936-1944.

From the description of Papers, 1882-1979 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52250072

Sociologist and professor at Fisk University.

From the description of Robert Ezra Park papers. Supplement 3, 1923-1942. (Fisk University). WorldCat record id: 755934597

Robert Ezra Park was born on February 14, 1864, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. His mother, Theodosia Warner Clark, was a school teacher. His father, Hiram Asa Park, was a soldier in the Union Army. After the war, the Parks moved to Red Wing, Minnesota, the home of Robert’s paternal grandfather, and Hiram Park opened a grocery store.

Robert Park spent the next eighteen years of his life in Red Wing. Though he did not show much promise inside the classroom, his extra-curricular interests were already wide ranging. Curious about his ancestry and the personal histories of his fellow townspeople, he studied the immigrant community of his household helper, Litza, and the careers of the middle-class citizens of Red Wing. He graduated high school in 1882, finishing tenth in a class of thirteen.

To the surprise and chagrin of his father, he ran away and enrolled in the University of Minnesota as a freshmen. Since Park passed all of his courses, however, his father’s objections to his attending college eased. He even offered to finance Robert’s education, suggesting that Robert go to the more reputable University of Michigan to further his studies. While at Michigan, Park initially chose to major in philology, eventually switching to philosophy after coming under the influence of John Dewey, who was then at the start of his career. In 1887, Park graduated with a Ph.B.

The next several years of his life Park spent as a newspaperman. He got his start in Minneapolis but proceeded to make his way across the country, working in Detroit, then Denver, and, finally, in New York. His perseverance in following a story led to being assigned to cover gambling houses, opium dens, and the like. These provided him with the exposure to the underworld that would continue to interest him in his later sociological studies.

In 1892, Park decided to quit journalism and work with his father, who had since relocated to South Carolina. On the way there, however, he learned that Dewey was planning to put together an experimental newspaper. Interested, he took a detour back to Michigan. While Park was visiting Michigan, Dewey introduced him to Franklin Ford and his revolutionary ideas about the role information should or could play in society. At the center of this revolution was to be a newspaper, The Thought News, that would unite the scholarship of the academy with the journalism of the day. Though the newspaper they planned never came into existence, Park remained in Michigan, eventually resuming his job as a journalist in Detroit.

During his involvement with Ford’s project, however, he had met a young artist named Clara Cahill. During his time in Detroit, he continued to court her and in June 1894 they were married.

In 1898, after eleven years of journalism, Park decided to return to school, and he went to Harvard to get a M.A. in philosophy. While there, he studied with the “three graces”: Josiah Royce, George Santayana, and William James. It was William James who made the strongest impression on him. Though Dewey had made him interested in the contemplative life, James turned him away from contemplating ideas to contemplating things.

Park left Harvard in the fall of 1899 to go to the Friederich-Wilhelm University in Berlin. He took several classes there with George Simmel, including the only sociology class he would ever take in his life. Park effectively dropped out, though, after discovering a book which attacked the methodological problem he had come to think was most important. The book was written by a student of Wilhem Windelband’s, and in 1900 Park went to Strassburg to study with him. He followed Windelband to Heidelberg in 1902 and in 1903 submitted his dissertation Masse und Publikum to the Heidelberg faculty.

Park then returned to Boston, having secured a position as Assistant in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. He took two other jobs to make ends meet, serving as the editor of the Sunday edition of a Boston newspaper and as the secretary of the Congo Reform Association. He grew to see that the problem in the Congo was not merely an administrative one that could be done away by changing the foreign policy of Belgium (or the West in general). The problem was inherent in the idea of colonialism and in the encounter of more and less developed peoples. The only solution, he decided, was education of the younger and less-developed people. While planning a trip to an industrial school in South Africa, Park sought out Booker T. Washington for advice. Washington invited Park to see his Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama, before he left.

After he visited Tuskegee, Park was offered a job by Washington as publicity handler for the Institute (a job that was first offered to W.E.B. DuBois). Never making it to Africa, Park instead went to work at the Tuskegee Institute. While there, his interest in the role of the Negro in the South blossomed. On top of his official duties, he did field research and took courses at the Institute. In 1910, he went on a tour of Europe with Washington to compare European poverty to its American counterpart. The book The Man Farthest Down, which Park co-wrote with Washington, came out of this visit. Park resigned from his post at the Tuskegee Institute in 1912 to spend more time with his wife and four children, who had remained in Wollaston, Massachusetts throughout his association with Washington.

In 1914, Park accepted an offer to teach a winter course on the Negro at the University of the Chicago. The offer was extended by W.I. Thomas, who had befriended Park at the “International Conference on the Negro,” which Park had helped plan for the Tuskegee Institute in 1912. Park was a perfect fit with Thomas and the department and so was quickly taken on by the University as a professiorial lecturer.

His first major work at Chicago was the famous Park-Burgess Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921). The production of the book was actually motivated more by Burgess. In 1916, Burgess was brought on as an instructor and required to teach an introductory class on sociology. He asked an older professor for his notes, but was rebuffed. Burgess then asked Park for help and they together assembled what became the Introduction. Park would later claim that his major contribution to sociology was in giving it working concepts and a systematic basis. A large part of Park’s influence was due to this book since it would later become the standard textbook for the study of sociology in America.

Park taught at the University of Chicago from 1914 until 1932. While he was there he was involved in various research projects in conjunction with his many students. During this time, his own personal interests never flagged. He studied race relations on the Pacific Coast and took trips to Hawaii, Japan, and China to further his research. In 1929, he also helped in founding the Park House, which was a social center for young people who had recently moved to the city of Chicago.

After retiring from the University of Chicago, Park took a trip around the world with his wife, Clara. When he returned from his trip, he did not cease teaching. He taught courses during this time at Michigan and at Harvard Summer School. They then settled down in Nashville, Tennessee, where Fisk University gave Park the opportunity to teach as much or as little as he wanted. Even in his old age, though, Park was interested in novel ideas and new fields of study, spending most of his years at Fisk investigating human ecology.

Robert Ezra Park died at his home in Nashville on February 7, 1944.

From the guide to the Park, Robert Ezra. Collection, 1882-1979, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Hawaiians
  • Sociologists
  • Sociology
  • Freedmen--Interviews
  • African Americans--Education (Higher)
  • Chicago school of sociology
  • Race relations
  • African Americans
  • Asian Americans
  • Americanization


  • Sociologists--Tennessee--Nashville


  • Montgomery Country (Tenn.) (as recorded)
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  • United States (as recorded)
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  • Tennessee--Nashville (as recorded)
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