New resource reveals the forgotten history of the first ever global anti-racism summit

A new resource being launched today has revealed the forgotten history of humanism and humanists in the UK. New discoveries include the holding of the First Universal Races Congress, which was held in London in 1911, and was the first ever global summit organised to tackle racism, ‘with a view to encouraging between [those of different races] a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation’. The Congress predated similarly-themed UNESCO conferences by four decades, but has long since been forgotten. Though enormously influential in the years prior to the First World War, very little has been written about it in the decades since. But now the Humanist Heritage project, launching today, is set to change that.

New details of the Congress coming to light for the first time in over 100 years include the reaction of the American civil rights activist and humanist W.E.B. Du Bois, and the organising role of that era’s current, former, and future UK Prime Ministers. The Congress was also attended by such notable individuals as the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and the social activist Jane Addams.

The Congress was principally organised by Gustav Spiller, a leader of the Union of Ethical Societies – which is today Humanists UK – in a bold attempt to challenge racism and encourage international understanding. The role of the three Prime Ministers have been forgotten about ever since, but the Humanist Heritage website reveals that the Congress’s Vice Presidents included then-UK Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, a Liberal; his predecessor Arthur Balfour, a Conservative; and future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Asquith and Balfour were Christians but the Humanist Heritage project has also uncovered that MacDonald was a humanist who had previously chaired several congresses of the Union of Ethical Societies – the equivalent role today being President of Humanists UK. Stanton Coit, the founder of what is now Humanists UK, was another Vice President of the Congress.

Du Bois had co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) two years earlier, and was part of a large African-American delegation to the Congress. His reaction to it was recorded in The Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, but is now being unearthed for the first time since. He wrote:

‘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…’

Another attendee was Charles Alexander Eastman, a Santee Dakota doctor and Native American rights activist. He wrote that the Congress 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.’

Resolutions from the Congress included ‘To urge that the establishment of harmonious relations between the divisions of mankind is a prerequisite to any attempt to diminish warfare and extend the practice of arbitration… To emphasize that differences in civilization do not connote either inferiority or superiority… [and] To point out the absurdity of the belief prevalent among peoples of the world that their customs, their civilization, and their physique are superior to those of other peoples…’

Unfortunately, the Congress did not have the lasting effect it could have. Ambitious plans to take forward its work were shattered by the First World War. That in turn was followed by the Great Depression and then the Second World War. It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War and its clearly racist motivations that international efforts to tackle racism were able to begin anew. Du Bois later said that the Congress ‘would have marked an epoch in the racial history of the world if it had not been for the World War’.

Humanist Heritage

For too long, the history of humanism and of people motivated to do great things on the basis of humanist beliefs and values has been little represented and profoundly under-recognised in the UK. But that all looks set to change. The new research into the Universal Races Congress is amongst hundreds of revelations on the in-depth new resource Humanist Heritage, which shows how humanist activists played a leading role in virtually all of the 20th century’s movements to change society. It is being launched today to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Humanists UK this very month.

By cataloguing hundreds of humanist people, ideas, organisations, and innovations, the new Humanist Heritage website aims to put one of the most important social movements in UK history in the spotlight for the first time.

This ranges from well-known national heroes whose humanist motivations have often been overlooked, like codebreaker Alan Turing, DNA discoverer Rosalind Franklin, and NHS founder Nye Bevan – to campaigners who have languished in obscurity for decades but whose influence on the UK today is so vast that that deserves to change. This includes people like May Seaton-Tiedeman, who in 1937 was instrumental in making it possible to get divorced because of cruelty or desertion; Elizabeth Swann, Chair of the First Annual Congress of the Union of Ethical Societies, who was instrumental in bringing about laws to regulate midwifery; and Zona Vallance, a campaigner for women’s equality, suffrage, and for an end to religious instruction, as well as the first honorary secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies – equivalent to Humanists UK Chief Executive today – a remarkable position for a woman to have held in the 19th century.

Humanists are non-religious people who think for themselves and act for everyone. Today YouGov polling suggests around 7% of people in the UK – almost 5 million people – primarily identify as humanists, while almost 30% hold humanist beliefs.

The research project was led by Madeleine Goodall, whose findings unearthed many activists, particularly women, buried or excised from history, or whose humanist convictions were left out of their official biographies. Commenting on the project, Ms Goodall said:

‘The Humanist Heritage project has been truly eye-opening in shedding light on a large number of forgotten figures, lost not only from the history of humanism but from that of the UK as a whole. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, freethinking individuals were pioneering changes in education, healthcare, law, and social welfare, the results of which we largely take for granted today. Looking afresh at these remarkable stories provides a new way of understanding the past and the present, as well as envisioning a future we can be proud of.

‘The Universal Races Congress was a remarkable achievement, so far ahead of its time. It is a shame that its legacy was shattered by the two World Wars and Great Depression, or else it would no doubt be remembered as the birthplace of the global efforts to eradicate racism that would have followed.’

Commenting on the overlooked humanist motivations of many great social reformers, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘Many notable figures in UK history were humanists and expressed strong humanist motivations. Curiously however this fact has frequently been left out of their biographies, as well as from official histories of our nation’s laws and institutions. This is the case even when those individuals were leading members of humanist societies in their day.

‘Our 125th anniversary is a fitting time to right that wrong. We are therefore delighted to be able to share the Humanist Heritage resource with the world, and celebrate humanists that shaped the UK into the country it is today.

‘We see this as a resource for the future, which is destined to grow and grow as new heritage is uncovered and explored.’

125th anniversary events

Humanists UK has a whole series of events and activities planned around its 125th anniversary, of which the Humanist Heritage website is the flagship.

Events planned include ‘How humanist activists shaped society’, on 30 April: a look back with historians and long-time humanist activists like Diane Munday, who was instrumental in bringing about legal abortion in Britain. Other events later in the year include to the 42nd anniversary of the Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT Humanists, a section of Humanists UK); on the history of race equality and humanism; and another with a focus on faith schools, marking the anniversary of the Moral Instruction League being founded in 1897.

A history of Humanists UK

Humanists UK was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. The ethical culture movement focused on living well and acting morally, separating both from any notions of supernatural punishment or reward. The first ethical societies trace their roots back to the 1870s, and at their peak in the 1900s there were over 70. Today there is one ethical society left in the UK, namely Conway Hall in Holborn.

In 1920, the Union of Ethical Societies was renamed the Ethical Union. In 1963-7, the Ethical Union became the British Humanist Association, with the Happy Human logo being invented in 1965. The BHA further evolved into Humanists UK in 2017, and today has around 100,000 members and supporters, more than ever before.

As well as organising the first ever global anti-racism gathering, the Universal Races Congress in 1911, humanists were involved in such firsts as the 1955 BBC broadcast ‘Morals without Religion’ by Margaret Knight, psychologist and later member of the Humanist Broadcasting Council, which broke new ground as the first-ever broadcast of its type, and led to an avalanche of complaints; and the founding of the Humanist Housing Association in 1955 and Agnostics Adoption Society in 1963, to provide services that in their time had not been available to non-religious people, and which had a special interest in supporting racial minorities.

The archive also unearths hundreds of papers showing humanists were at the forefront of various civil rights causes. This included calling for LGBT rights as long ago as the Victorian era, fighting against section 28 in the 1980s, and helping bring about legal recognition of same-sex marriages in the 2010s. The roll call of activism also includes reforms on abortion, the death penalty, and free school meals, the abolition of England and Wales’s blasphemy laws in 2008, and the legal recognition of humanist marriages in Scotland in 2005 and Northern Ireland in 2018.

Other notable people with a shared history include a young Gandhi, who attended the Universal Races Congress, published translations of American humanist writings, and was close friends with Florence Winterbottom, Secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies; Jennie Lee, a humanist who founded the Open University; and Wole Soyinka, who spoke at the 2014 World Humanist Congress and today is a patron of Humanists UK.