Podcast #31: Booker T. Washington vs. WEB Dubois’ views on the improvement of conditions for Black Americans

For Black Americans in the post-civil war era, while some rights had been given, through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the black codes that had been passed in the southern states drastically limited those rights. Furthering the progress and protecting the rights of Black Americans was left up to Black Americans. When Reconstruction ended in 1877 well before it should have ended, the Federal Government abandoned Black America. The Federal Government would not protect the rights granted in the late 1860s and 1870s until the 1960s. With the end of Reconstruction, by the 1880s, Frederick Douglas felt No group should have to rely on another to protect their rights – it will never happen. With the death of Frederick Douglas in 1895, two men emerged as leaders of the Black American Community.

To understand why the lives and the work of Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois are so important, we have to look at the conditions of Black Americans in the United States. When people talk about slavery in America, they tend to talk about it through the lens of yes, slavery was bad, it was an evil institution, but we don’t do it anymore. We may not have slavery anymore, but we are very much still living with the consequences of slavery, of the black codes, of Jim Crow. Enslaved people were not allowed to learn how to read and write. Very few enslaved people knew how to read and write. When slavery was abolished, they are free… but where do they go? What can they do with that freedom? What skills do they have to support themselves? Their families? How do they find their family that had been sold away, or those that had run away in the hope of a better life? How do they live in the ashes of the South in the post-civil war era?

31 minutes of recordings.

The life and work of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were instrumental in helping to further the social, political and economic conditions of Black Americans. Their ideas to help bring about equality to Black Americans were not only different, but very much in opposition to eachother.

Booker T Washington was born into the institution of slavery. His mother was a slave to a Virginia tobacco plantation owner and he and his family were freed towards the end of the Civil War through the Emancipation Proclamation. He spent 9 years as a slave. After his family was freed, Booker T. Washington was put to work in the salt mines. It was hard laborious work. He longed to go to school which he eventually was allowed to do. Booker T Washington then went on to work as a house servant for a wealthy white family. His mother and stepfather kept all of his earnings. The wife of his employer taught him to read and allowed him to attend school in the afternoon. You have to understand the drive that he had to learn. Even with having to work such long hours, whether it was in the salt mill or as a house servant he made sure to complete his work so that he could go to school

Believed in Industrial Education

In 1871, Booker T Washington traveled hundreds of miles, mostly by foot and working along the way when he could to earn some money. In his book, “Up from Slavery”, Washington describes how he overheard people talking about the Institute and was determined to go there and learn. He arrived at the Hampton Institute and worked as a Janitor there, helping to pay the school’s tuition. He Studied for 3 years at Hampton Institute. Hampton Institute was started by General Samuel Armstrong who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, fighting in a number of important battles and rose up the ranks. He led a unit of Black soldiers which at the time was referred to as USCT or United States Colored Troops. His experience with training and working with Black soldiers during the Civil War inspired him to to join the Freedman’s Bureau and to also open up a school to educate Black Americans. The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was created in 1868. In our podcast on Social Reform Movements of the 1840s we discussed the Normal schools established by Horace Mann. This school was for the training of teachers and for skilled labor. The goal was to create a steady supply of black educators who would then go and teach other children and young adults the skills they would need to prosper. This school is now known as Hampton University and you can learn more about it by going to hamptonu.edu. Booker T. Washington was their most famous student and not only went on to teach at the Hampton Institute but was hand selected by General Armstrong to be the first Principal of a new school being created in Alabama, Tuskegee Institute. So the young determined man who traveled hundreds of miles for a chance at an education and arrived with 50 cents in his pockets was now going to be in charge of a new school.

Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was created by what started out as an agreement between a former slave, a man by the name of Lewis Adams and a man hoping to be reelected to the Alabama state legislature. In exchange for helping to secure the black vote in the area, the state legislature would pass a bill creating a charter for what would become known as the Tuskegee Institute. Started by a former plantation owner and a former slave Tuskegee Institute started off in a small building that when it rained, the water would pour in and over time, would evolve and grow into one of the most important historically Black Colleges in the country. Booker T. Washington purchased a 100 acre plot of land that was once a former cotton plantation. Over time, through donations from wealthy benefactors the campus grew. Students at the Tuskegee Institute weren’t just sitting in classrooms learning, they were out working on the campus building the buildings, making bricks, farming to produce food for the students and staff all the while acquiring skill sets that would help them to prosper.

The majority of the buildings on the campus were built by the students. Booker T. Washington stated that they wouldn’t buy anything they couldn’t make or build themselves. One of his most famous speeches was the Atlanta Compromise (1895) given at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.

“Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”

Don’t look to the north to gain what you need – cast down your buckets where you are. Work to better yourself, improve your surroundings, prove your ability.

To white members of the audience, he Encouraged the hiring of blacks as opposed to immigrants he stated “As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Think of Booker T. Washington’s perspective as being economic self-help. He points out the perspective that the majority of White Americans in the south and in North held in regards to equality, desegregation, education and employment opportunities, voting rights, just to name a few of the obstacles put before Black Americans. Even Darwin’s Theory of evolution helped to embolden racist views. He recognized the difficulties Black Americans faced and says, don’t worry about that now. WE need to focus on bettering ourselves first. We need to focus on educating ourselves and our youth. To focus on providing for ourselves. To own land, to build a home, to learn how to farm, to learn skills that will allow us to earn a wage. Social advancement was more important that securing civil or political rights. Through Industrial and Vocational training, black Americans could improve their lives.

Critics of Booker T Washington – why did many Black Americans view his politics as being dangerous?

“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.

The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” – Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington wrote his first of many books, Up From Slavery in 1901. While he advocated for vocational training and spoke out against agitating for full political and civil rights. Booker T. Washington did quietly help to fund court cases that would help to bring an end to segregation and limits of voting rights. He was an advisor to US Presidents and a leader within the Black American Community until his death.

For people who aren’t history aficionados, the don’t know that Booker T Washington was supported financially by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie donated money for a library to be built on the campus and later sent an endowment of 600,000 for the Tuskegee Institute. Stipulating that money be set aside to provide for both Booker T Washington and his wife so that they are provided for and can dedicate their time to their mission. At the end of letter Carnegie wrote “History is to tell of two Washington’s one white, the other black, both fathers of their people.” He helped to found the National Negro Business League with help of donations from Andrew Carnegie in 1900. The purpose, was to promote the development of both black owned businesses and communities. It was renamed The National Business league and still exists today. Washington also helped to create and support thousands of schools for black children throughout the south.

He Became ill while in New York on a fundraising campaign. He was brought back to Atlanta at his own request knowing he would most likely not survive the trip back down south. He died on November 14, 1915. After his death, his wife recounted that her husband told her, he was born in the south, he lived in the south and he would die and be buried in the south. He was buried on the Tuskegee Campus cemetery.

Unlike Booker T Washington, WEB DuBois was born after the Civil War in the North.

WEB DuBois was born on Feb. 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The DuBois Center in Great Barrington, is a great resource for understanding his early years. He grew up in a small, mostly white town that had not just an elementary school but a high school as well. While he had more opportunities to learn than Booker T Washington, his life wasn’t easy. His father left the family when they were young and his mother was sickly after suffering a stroke and died shortly after his high school graduation. He was fortunate that members of his community helped him to afford the extra books he needed to prepare for College. WEB DuBois worked a variety of odd jobs to earn money and worked hard at his studies.

In 1885, he studied at Fisk College in Tennessee which was created just after the end of The Civil War. It was while in Tennessee, teaching elementary school, he witnessed Jim Crow laws for the first time. For two summers he taught 30 children in a small shanty room that once was used to store corn. In his book, the Souls of Black Folks he talked about the time he spent teaching there and the clear differences between how he attended school in the North and how his students learned in the south. He would go on to study at Harvard for his master’s degree and was the first African American to earn a PhD there in 1909. During his time at Harvard, he had the opportunity to study abroad in Berlin with the help of the Slater Fund. He repeatedly wrote and appealed to the chairman of the fund, former President Rutherford B. Hayes. The same man whose election in 1877 through the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction. The Slater fund was a scholarship created by John Fox Slater, through a 1-million-dollar endowment. He was a descendent of John Slater ( Samuel Slater’s brother) who had become very wealthy as a New England Mill owner making shoddy cloth also known as Negro cloth. It was an inexpensive cloth made from wool and cotton scraps. He also made a significant amount of money through the contracts he received during the Civil War. That money not only helped WEB DuBois but also George Washington Carver and helped to fund a number of historically black colleges and Universities. There is a wonderful NY Post article from Sept, of 2019 written Louisa Beck on WEB DuBois experience in Germany in 1892. In it Beck stated “ For Du Bois, however, Europe in the late 19th century offered refuge from the United States, a place where he witnessed institutionalized segregation and violence against black people daily. The unity beneath all life clutched me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I felt myself standing, not against the world, but simply against American narrowness and color prejudice, with the greater, finer world at my back.”

His experience in Germany changed the way he viewed life for Black Americans in the United States. It is something DuBois wrote about in his many works. DuBois was a lifelong learner and scholar. He would write hundreds of essays and over 20 books, his most famous being The souls of black folks. So yes, he was an educator, a great speaker, an editor and writer but he was also a Sociologist. He briefly taught ancient and modern language at Wilberforce University and then went on to work at The University of Pennsylvania. Where he conducted research on the 7th Ward of Philadelphia. He went door to door interviewing people. From that work came his 1899 study, The Philadelphia Negro. The work, which was the first of its kind, discussed the variety of social problems that existed within that African American Community. Within his research he concluded that the only way to solve these problems if for whites and blacks to work together to change the perception of Black Americans in American society. Gilda Lerhman Institute has some great information on this. His next teaching job brought him to Atlanta University where he spent the next 10 years teaching history, economics and single handedly building up what would become one of the best sociology departments in the country. During this time this is when he writes The Souls of Black Folks in 1903 and helps to found both the Niagara Movement and the NAACP.

In 1900, DuBois helped to curate an exposition for the World’s Columbian Exposition which was held in Paris that year. Photographs of African American families, schools, specialty classes, every day activities showcasing life within the African American community coupled with data showing population growth, advancements of African American families, from the Civil War to present day and vast volumes of writings from authors.

In opposition to Booker T Washington’s push for an industrial Education, WEB DuBois instead stressed the importance of a formal and classical education. That if the best brightest of the African American community or what he referred to as the Talented tenth, became educated, and went on to become leaders of the community, it would go on to benefit the entire African American community. While at first, WEB DuBois supported Booker T Washington, he went on to become one of his biggest critics.

The Niagara Movement in 1905 was started by 2 critics of Booker T Washington. Web Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter who organized a Conference in Canada near Niagara Falls where they set out to do the work necessary to bring about Political and Social Equality for Black Americans. While this initial group didn’t achieve their goals it paved the way for the creation of the NAACP.

In 1909, DuBois helped to found the National Advancement for the Association of Colored People or the NAACP along with both black and white male and female activists such as Ida Wells. If you don’t know much about the NAACP and the work that they have done and continue to do, please go to NAACP.org to find out more. Through the court system and nonviolent protests, the NAACP helped to break down Jim Crow laws and work towards Political and Social equality. WEB DuBois believed that they had to agitate. That they couldn’t sit idly by and wait to be given equality.

In 1911 the NAACP issued its official mission statement:

"To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law."

In the Post WWI years, Dr. DuBois supported the Pan Africanism Movement. Organizing a number of Pan African Congresses throughout the years he along with many others, called for an end to the practice of Colonialism by European Powers. He hoped to see a united Africa with countries controlled by Africans. His outspoken stance on Nuclear weapons and strong criticism got him into trouble with the US Government in the post WWII era. In 1951, he was tried and acquitted of being an agent of a foreign country. If you know your US History, you know 1950s America is in the midst of a Red Scare and Anticommunist. Just the subtle suggestion that one was a communist sympathizer was enough to ruin one’s career which it did for many people including Dr. Dubois. He would travel to Russia and China in the late 1950s and continued to speak out against Nuclear Weapons and in support of Civil Rights for African Americans. He joined the communist party in 1961 and that same year at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, he went at the age of 93 to go and live with his second wife in Ghana where he remained for 2 years until his death. Dr. WEB DuBois died at the age of 95 on Aug. 27th, 1963. The very same day as Dr. King’s famous March on Washington. A march he had called for decades earlier. His death received very little fanfare in the US, but he received a state funeral in Ghana. A country that he had become a citizen of just a few months earlier.

When you look at the lives and the work of these two men and the impact that they each had on future Civil Rights Activists. The impact that they had on American Society. After Reconstruction ended so abruptly it was up to Black Americans and Black Americans alone to protect their communities from Jim Crow laws, segregation, to lift themselves up out of poverty and to provide opportunity, to create and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities that were beacons of hope. At a time where segregation – a separation of the races that was inherently unequal, these two men who had very different approaches each tried to better the world in which they lived.

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