In the period after Reconstruction the position of African Americans in southern American society steadily deteriorated. After 1877 the possibilities of advancements for African Americans disappeared almost completely. African Americans experienced a loss of voting rights and political power created by methods of terrorization such as lynching. The remaining political and economic gains that were made during reconstruction were eventually whittled away by Southern legislation. By the 1900s African Americans had almost no access to political, social, or economic power. Shortly after this Jim Crow laws began to emerge, segregating blacks and whites. This dramatic transition from African American power to powerlessness after reconstruction gave birth to two important leaders in the African American community, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Although these two remarkable men were both in search of a common goal, their roads leading to this goal were significantly different. This is most evident in the two most important documents of the mens careers: Booker T. Washingtons, 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech and W.E.B. DuBois response to this, The Souls of Black Folks. These two men were both dedicated to solving the difficult problems African Americans experienced in the post reconstruction south. Both DuBois and Washington wanted economic prosperity for African Americans but they differed on what would be done to achieve this. Both men focused on education as a key to the improvement of black life but they differed on the form education should take. The true difference in these mens extremely different routes to better the lives of African Americans after reconstruction was a product of their extremely different backgrounds. In this essay I will examine the documents, 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks in order to determine the paths that each of these men took towards the advancement of African Americans, and the reasons behind these methods.
DuBois and Washington came from extremely different backgrounds. These differences are essential to understanding why each of these men went about trying to achieve progress for their race in the way they did. DuBois, the son of free parents, was born a free man and grew up in a white environment with more privileges and advantages than the majority of African Americans living in the United States at that time. He suffered neither severe economic hardship nor from repeated encounters with racism. In contrast, Booker T. Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation. In the first chapter of his Autobiography, Up From Slavery, he states, My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This is in direct contrast with the life of W.E.B. Dubois. After the Civil War Washington and his family were declared free. Washington worked his way up from being a slave and eventually became a student at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. These extremely different backgrounds effected both of these mens political, social, and economic views. Throughout his life Washington had a pessimistic view of whites and saw the only way to achieve progress was to tell whites what they wanted to hear. DuBois had a more optimistic view. Growing up mostly with whites DuBois has a romantic belief in America. He believes that whites have a morality deep down that only needs to be stirred up. At a time when more than one hundred African Americans were lynched each year in the south Washingtons perception seems much more realistic.
The debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois reflected the economic despair that African Americans in the South felt. The Southern economy was suffering from its extreme racism and Washington saw this as an opportunity to create economic opportunities for blacks. Booker T. Washingtons, Atlanta Exposition Speech was given at an industrial fair in Atlanta, Georgia. The Industrial fair was the showcase for the new south and a symbol of the progress the south had made in industry since the end of the civil war. It was the perfect place to make a speech advocating that Southern business owners, Cast down your buckets where you are. Meaning they use the labor of blacks which was readily available around them. To further entice white capitalists he evoked images of blacks as the loyal servants they had been as slaves in order to gain the trust needed for whites to provide blacks with jobs. In the Atlanta Exposition Speech he stated, As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sickbed 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. By doing this Washington hoped to appeal to the white Southerners who were weary of labor strikes in the North. He urged whites to, Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. This was an attempt by Washington to provoke jobs for blacks from white Southerners, however, there were problems with this. By offering not to strike and invoking these images of slaves he made way for a new type of wage slavery. DuBois wrote The Souls of Black Folks largely as a reaction to the ideas hatched by Washington.
One of the most important obstacles for African Americans that Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois challenged was the lack of education available to blacks in the South, where the majority of African American people lived during this time. Both Washington and DuBois received a college level education, but Washingtons was merely vocational training versus the Harvard Ph.D. held by DuBois. Despite their differences, both Washington and DuBois saw this lack of educational opportunity for blacks a serious problem, however the differences in their education reflect their stances on the issue. Washington thought that an industrial education would be more beneficial to African Americans. Vocational education for Washington meant living in the South in the economic condition in which you found it, to aspire to be carpenters, to be bricklayers, to be seamstresses and to create black businesses (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/1900/filmmore/ reference/interview/washing_bookertdubois.html). This ideology gave way to popularity of Washington in both the African American and white communities. For African Americans this was a major solution to the economic problems they faced in the post reconstruction south. For whites this was an answer to the problem of labor they required, with less possibilities of strikes. DuBois opposed this view, hoping for a more formal education for African Americans like the one he had received. He sees the opportunity for developing exceptional black scholars in schools that are not integrated. His vision becomes a reality in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case where the notion of separate but equal is deemed constitutional. In addition, he argued that, Social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called the Talented Tenth (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/etc/road.html). However, Washingtons hopes for an industrial education appealed to the white population more than that of DuBois. He was able to form the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school for African Americans, with help from rich whites such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who were impressed by his non-threatening racial views. This school thrived while segregated black schools received little funding and failed to provide African American students with a decent education. His program also may have given more immediate results for the black population. This could have improved their economic situation however there was one fatal flaw in endorsing this kind of education for African Americans. Without scholars that received more than just a vocational education, there was no one to teach students these vocational skills. Booker T. Washingtons plan involved the immediate economic improvement for blacks that would lead to social and political equality. However, even with improved economic stance for African Americans, without scholars there would be no one to lead them to social and political equality. Without higher education people like Washington himself would not exist. There would be no one to guide African Americans or to appeal to white people for these political and social gains.
Another challenge faced during this time was the problem of segregation. The dramatic falling off of black voting due to legislation and terrorization allowed Jim Crow laws to be passed. These laws created a society in which blacks and whites were segregated in many sectors of life. These sectors, however, were not chosen randomly. They had highly gendered and sexual backgrounds. Most laws were imposed in areas of life where white women came into contact with black men. Washington and DuBois had very different opinions on both the de facto and de jour segregation existing at this time. Washington fully excepted this segregation. In the 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech he stated, In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This came to be known as The Atlanta Compromise. This is evidence that Washington was an accommodationist. He accepted the social and political situation of the South and the dominance of white culture. His ultimate goal was integration through transformation of black citizens. In contrast to this DuBois was an integrationist. However, he did not believe that African Americans should assimilate or give up their pride in order to achieve integration. Both of these mens positions on this matter are a reflection of their background. Washingtons deep cynicism causes him to see extremely limited possibilities for whites opening up to blacks. His policies are based on the perception that African Americans will not be treated equally unless they assimilate into white culture. DuBois is less pessimistic however and believes that racial equality can exist without assimilation. DuBois has faith in American culture that does not exist in Washington. This faith comes from growing up in the more liberal north, where he rarely came into contact with the extreme racism southern blacks faced.
Despite these differences expressed in the documents of these two men and their extremely different backgrounds, they were not in complete disagreement. DuBois referred to Booker T. Washington as the greatest black leader since Frederick Douglas. And also referred to Washington as the most distinguished man, black or white, to come out of the South since the Civil War ( http:// www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/1900/filmmore/reference/interview/washing_bookertdubois.html). However, DuBois observed the major flaws which existed in Washingtons plans. DuBois saw that more education was required to produce those who taught vocational programs. He also realized that vocational education would not create the leaders that the African American community so desperately needed. He saw that without these leaders social progress was impossible. He also disagreed with Washingtons acceptance of segregation and his agreement to give up political rights. He realized that without political and legal rights African Americans would never make the advancements Washington hoped for. In The Souls of Black Folks DuBois himself states, Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic no.
Both Washington and DuBois wanted the same thing for their race. However their means of achieving economic, social, and political equality differed greatly. Washington hoped his economic approach would eventually result in this complete equality for blacks, but felt blacks had to start from the bottom and work their way up the economic ladder if they were to be given the equality they deserved. He was willing assume a position of temporary inferiority in order to achieve this. I believe that this was Washingtons greatest flaw. He was working on the assumption that blacks could better their position without any political or social rights, an impossible task. DuBois, taking a more political approach, saw where Washington was coming from but did not believe that giving up constitutional rights would lead to a solution. However, Washingtons stance allowed him to receive large amounts of money that he used to educate disadvantaged African Americans. This was a great accomplishment in itself. His formula may actually have had more of a direct impact on the lives of African Americans that that of DuBois. His more radical stance was not accepted by whites, therefore he did not have the ties to white power that would have allowed him to achieve the equality he was searching for. In fact, DuBois expressed a distinct prejudice against whites. His race prejudice was more and more apparent. Typical of these editorial comments in The Crisis was one stating that the most ordinary Negro is a distinct gentleman, but it takes extraordinary training and opportunity to make the average white man anything but a hog
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