When Frederick Douglass died in 1895, white social and political leaders saw that his death created a power vacuum for a black political leader in a particularly dangerous, unstable time. They would attempt, and succeed, to fill this vacuum with someone who they hoped would help to quell the racial tensions, someone who had risen from the lowliest of circumstances of his race to a place of high regard and clout, and someone who had already demonstrated his moderate, accommodationist philosophy in previous addresses: Booker T. Washington. As recounted in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington spoke about his views at two significant events in the North and received a positive reception from both Northern and Southern whites, before he was asked to speak at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in fall of 1895. His controversial speech would come to be known as the Atlanta Compromise. Despite succeeding at bringing together both black and white interests in the South, it would also serve to ingratiate the Negro race to white America and would be partially responsible for slowing social and political progress in the era of Jim Crow. Though he originally agreed with the address, these points and further criticisms of Washington’s program are what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in The Souls of Black Folk; this publication would forever put him in intellectual opposition to Washington.
In order to understand the differing impacts of the writings by Washington and Du Bois, it is necessary to understand the stage onto which these major players entered. Jacqueline Moore notes the rise of minstrel shows and blackface in the mid 1800’s propagated racial stereotypes that African-Americans were “lazy, dishonest, and lacking mental capacity for anything beyond manual labor” (4). In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which gave rise to “Social Darwinism”. Social Darwinism was a theory in the social sciences that believed Western European races were the ideal and therefore the degree of difference between any race from that ideal, was directly proportional to that race’s inferiority (Moore, 3). This belief was further reinforced by the pseudo-scientific evaluation of African facial features that was being conducted at the time (see fig. 1). These studies gave a scientific basis and excuse for racism.
The end of the Reconstruction Era and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South saw a drastic increase in voter fraud, intimidation, and violence at the polls, targeting African American voters (see fig. 2). All of these, combined with the South’s economic hardships in the Post-Reconstruction Era, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, culminated in the time period that historian Rayford Logan, who has written extensively on African-American history and race relations, describes as “the nadir of African-American history.”
According to Logan, the decade between 1890 and 1900 was marked by over two thousand documented lynchings (informal public executions by mobs that bypass due process). These lynchings were brutal affairs, often involving torture of the victims, distribution of dismembered body parts as souvenirs to spectators, and widespread circulation of photographs of the killings or effigies thereof (see fig. 3).
In an interview conducted before his death in 1963, Du Bois acknowledged that the differences in philosophies were probably due in large part to the differences in their upbringing and development (McGill). Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in approximately 1856. After the emancipation proclamation, he and his family joined his step-father, a freedman who escaped slavery during the civil war, in West Virginia. As a young boy, Washington, like his step-father, worked in coal and salt mines. After work, he walked great distances to go to school and painstakingly learned to read and write. It is this time period that may have shaped his philosophy that hard work would lead to economic success, and thereafter political power would be earned and given freely. After common school, Washington attended Hampton Institute, a school established to educate freedmen and their descendants, before being recommended to be principal and founder of Tuskegee Institute.
W.E.B. Du Bois on the other hand, was born to free, land-owning parents, post emancipation in 1868. He had access to greater privileges from the start. He attended the local integrated public school, earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University and from Harvard. He did graduate studies at the University of Berlin with some of the top social scientists of the times, and went on to be the first black man to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1985, the same year Washington would give his Atlanta Exposition speech.
At this time, Du Bois’ ideology was not yet crystallized. He originally approved and congratulated Washington on his address, calling it “a word fitly spoken” (see fig. 4). However, several events influenced his change in views between 1895 and 1903 when he would publish his collection of essays directly in contrast with Washington’s program. One such event which Du Bois recalled vividly in the interview with McGill was when he saw a recently-lynched Negro’s drying fingers on display in front of a grocery store. He found it difficult to reconcile the importance of patience in matters of social equality while such atrocities were regularly being committed against his people (McGill). In 1901, Washington published his own auto-biography in which he recalled his ascension as a political leader, as well as reconfirmed the beliefs he had established six years prior. Du Bois said, “I realized the need for what Washington was doing. Yet it seemed to me he was giving up essential ground that would be hard to win back” and Du Bois soon became a counterweight to the rhetoric coming from Tuskegee (McGill).
Washington preached self-help and believed that the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise, and thrift would win the respect of whites. He urged acceptance of social segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in favor of economic growth, asking each member of his race to “Cast down [their] bucket where [they] are.” He asked whites to do the same, but one popular interpretation came to be that he promised his race would work meekly under white oppression as they had done as slaves in the past:
“Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested . . . among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities . . . helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. Cast down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them . . . to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories . . . as in the past, you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, 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 defence of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours . . . 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.Booker T. Washington in Up from Slavery
Washington also wrote in his autobiography, “I believe that in the South we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states… either by an educational test, a property test, or by both combined…” This confirmed not only his acquiescence of voting rights, but his endorsement of disenfranchisement. According to Du Bois, “It startled the nation to hear a Negro advocating such a programme after many decades of bitter complaint; it startled and won the applause of the South, it interested and won the admiration of the North; and after a confused murmur of protest, it silenced if it did not convert the Negroes themselves.”
While he had many criticisms, W.E.B. Du Bois did not disagree with Washington’s program entirely. He did not advocate on opposition to industrial training, but in addition to it:
To be really true, all these ideals must be melted and welded into one. The training of the schools we need to-day more than ever,—the training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts. The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence,—else what shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,—the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. Work, culture, liberty,—all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together. . .W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk
He had hoped for a future in which both races could come together and it would be “possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face,” and without either race being subsumed by the other (Du Bois).
Du Bois did however take issue with the fact that his race had not chosen Washington as their spokesperson and that “by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr. Washington’s leadership; and the voice of national criticism was hushed.” (Du Bois). Washington had been selected by white political leaders and presented to a mixed-race audience as “a representative of Negro enterprise and Negro civilization” (Washington). Du Bois asserts, “If the best of American Negroes receive by outer pressure a leader whom they had not recognized before… there is irreparable loss – a loss of that peculiarly valuable education which a group receives when by search and criticism it finds and commissions its own leaders.”
Du Bois also saw that fulfilling the promises of emancipation meant a grab for political power and necessitated political agitation and organized protest, which Washington had called “the greatest folly.” According to Du Bois, “The ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the 15th Amendment gave [us]. The ballot… [should] now be regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with which the war had partially endowed him.” Du Bois sought to counteract Washington’s call for acceptance, saying, “By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to these great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal’…” Abolitionists throughout the country were equally divided. In his article chronicaling the relationship between Du Bois and Washington, Thomas Aiello notes, “black critics. . . saw Washington’s Compromise as a slippery slope” that would cause more problems than it could ever hope to solve (51). Unfortunately, while Washington had the best of intentions, his program helped sustain the ethos of Jim Crow America.
Washington believed that white southerners had an objection to amoral or illiterate black people having the right to vote or rising above their means, and he believed that rectifying these things would mean an end of racism. In reality, the white population had an existential objection to black people, not because of a lack of education or financial success and autonomy. Washington had misplaced his faith in the white people of his time, believing “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” (Washington) Whites in that era did not uphold their end of the compromise, but instead, burned down schools and churches and targeted black middle and working classes. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “[Washington’s] doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro Problem to the Negro’s shoulders… when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”
Despite this, some good did come from the divide in beliefs. Opposition to Washington’s acceptance of segregation resulted in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Niagara Movement; W.E.B. Du Bois was heavily involved with starting both, and the former is still active today. While Washington’s racial philosophy died with him, his economic policies are still relevant and Du Bois’ philosophy of agitation and civil protest flowed directly into 1960’s civil rights movement. The United States itself has come a long way; nine-year-old Jeremiah Harvey, who was accused by a white woman of sexual assault when his backpack brushed up against her in a store, did not become a second Emmett Till. There is still far to go however, and as Du Bois once said, “either the U.S. will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the U.S.”
Aiello, Thomas. “The First Fissure: The Du Bois-Washington Relationship from 1898-1899.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 51, no. 1, 2014, pp. 76–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43199122.
Bauerlein, Mark. “Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Origins of a Bitter Intellectual Battle.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 46 (winter, 2004 2005), pp. 106-114. The JBHE Foundation Inc., http://www.jstor.org/stable/4133693
Biography.com Editors. “W.E.B. Du Bois – Rivalry with Booker T. Washington.” Youtube, A&E Television Networks, 29 Jan. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnVt9RvN548.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Tragedy and Betrayal Of Booker T. Washington.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 31 Mar. 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/03/the-tragedy-and-betrayal-of-booker-t-washington/7092/.
Du Bois, W.E.B.. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903, Project Gutenberg, #408, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm.
Gates, Henry Louis. “The Debate Between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.” Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, 10 Feb. 1998, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/debate-w-e-b-du-bois-and-booker-t-washington/.
History.com Editors. “Booker T. Washington.” History, A&E Television Networks, 12 Sept. 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/black history/booker-t-washington.
Logan, Rayford Whittingham. The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. Reprint ed., Da Capo Press, 1997.
McGill, Ralph. “W.E.B. Du Bois.” The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1965, pp. 78–81, http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/flashbks/black/mcgillbh.htm. Accessed 25 Feb. 2019.
Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Vol. 1, Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003.
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. 1901, Project Gutenberg, #2376, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2376/2376-h/2376-h.htm.