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The Early Histories of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Part IV: W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and the Great Debate

Posted on 01/23/2023

W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868. He died ninety-five years later in Accra, Ghana in 1963.  During his long life he rose rapidly to become and remain a powerful voice on the issue of race in America and beyond.

His parents were mixed-race free Blacks living in a somewhat tolerant community. His father abandoned the family when he was young. His mother returned to her parent’s house, took work, and reared her son with some assistance from her family and neighbors. William (Edward Burghardt) Du Bois attended the local public schools where teachers recognized and encouraged his academic talents. With financial help from the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, he was able to attend Fisk University. From there he matriculated at Harvard which subsequently awarded him a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history. In 1895 Du Bois became the first African American to achieve a Ph.D. from Harvard.

One of the earliest mentions of Du Bois in the press occurred on May 11, 1890 in a curious snippet published by the Duluth News-Tribune in Minnesota.

At the Harvard college declamation contest the first prizes were won by W. E. B. Dubois and H. E. Burton. Dubois is a negro.

It is said the king of Dahomey is tired of the war with France and fears a rebellion of his own subjects.

Duluth Sunday Tribune. May 11, 1890. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Two days later, the Dallas Morning News ran an error-ridden article lauding his oratorical skill and also his pending graduation from Harvard.

William Edward Burghardt Dubois, the negro Harvard student who captured the first prize in the Boylston oratorical contest, is 26 years old [he was 22] and a member of the class graduating next June. He was born in the south [Massachusetts] and educate at Fisk university in Tennessee… young Dubois will study law and put out his shingle somewhere south of the Mason and Dixon's line.

Dallas Morning News. May 13, 1890. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Du Bois had no known intentions of being a lawyer somewhere in the south. Nevertheless, he had begun to garner national attention, and this would not be the last time incorrect information about him was published.

Throughout his extensive public career, Du Bois drew criticism from some black-owned newspapers including the Cleveland Gazette of Ohio which dismissed him briefly and absolutely on November 4, 1893.

Much of W. E. B. DuBois’ letters from Europe published in the New York Age make one very tired. ‘I, I, I, I, Me, me, me. Black bread and butter.’ Scat!

Cleveland Gazette. November 4, 1893. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

More positively, the Trenton Evening Times of New Jersey published an article on September 30, 1896 announcing an important event.

Dr. W. E. B. Dubois, colored, who was graduated from Harvard college several years ago and who has studied in German universities, has been appointed to a fellowship in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the first one of his race to hold such a position in this university… [He] will not be considered a member of the faculty and will not lecture at the college. His work will be among the colored population of Philadelphia.

The Trenton Evening Times. September 30, 1896. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The work that his fellowship supported was what he sought, and the next year Du Bois was the featured speaker at a meeting of the American Academy of Political Social Science in Philadelphia as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 20, 1897. His address was titled “The Study of the Negro Problem.”

Dr. Du Bois said the present period of sociological study was a trying one – nowhere better exemplified than in the United States, where the rapid rise of a young country, the vast social changes, wonderful economic development, bold political experiments and the contact of varying moral standards made crucial tests. The Negro problem, he said, was perhaps the largest domain for the study of social phenomena. He traced his subject back to 1619, when Africans were brought slaves to this country for the purpose of labor… the problem of to-day is that they [Negroes], a mass of 8,000,000, do not properly share the national life of the people, because as a mass they have not reached a sufficiently high grade of culture and because of a widespread antipathy to their race… The future of the race, though, he predicted in a sunny peroration as being capable of unlimited possibilities.

The Philadelphia Inquirer. November 20, 1897. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

As reported by the Freeman of Indianapolis on March 11, 1899, DuBois next set his sight on investigating the state of affairs for black businessmen.

This year we are going to study the Negro in business [,] the number of colored business-men, the kinds of business in which they are engaged and the difficulties they encounter. After we have collected this information from all parts of the South, we shall hold a conference on the subject May 30-31[,] 1899.’

The Freeman. March 11, 1899. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The next year Du Bois published “The College-Bred Negro: Report of social study made under the direction of Atlanta university [sic]; together with the proceedings of the fifth Conference for negro problems, held at Atlanta university, May 29-30, 1900.” The table of contents indicates the breadth of the study.

The College-Bred Negro: Report of a social study. 1902. From Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922.

The report is prefaced by a statement from the Southern History Association dated March, 1901.

The very best and most advanced work on the sociological conditions of the Negro is being done by Atlanta University, through the courses of study, through it teaching corps, through its publications, and through its stimulus to the Negro Conference that meets in that city.

The College-Bred Negro: Report of a social study. 1902. From Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922.

A year later, on February 8, 1902, the Savannah Tribune ran an article regarding his latest study, “The Housing of the Negro”, in which echoes of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy are heard.

Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, in the February Southern Workman, draws the following conclusions from his study…

…First, we as Negroes must recognize that the main tendencies among us are toward bad homes, bad houses, bad family customs and that therefore we must put forth special effort among ourselves and our neighbors to guard against carelessness and to insure progress in home building… Secondly, we must recognize that a large part of the Negro death-rate is due to poor houses and poor home customs… Thirdly, if it is difficult to develop good minds in poor bodies, it is just as hard to instill morals in one-room cabins or in bad houses anywhere.

The Savannah Tribune. February 8, 1902. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

In general, Du Bois’s views were not in accord with those of Washington as articulated in an article from the Broad Ax on December 19, 1903. The Broad Ax was a black-owned paper known for being particularly critical of Washington.

[H]is eloquent and scholarly remarks were well received by the large number of people who turned out to greet the brainy and manly author of ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’… his theory or idea as to the manhood rights of the Negro are entirely opposite to those entertained by Prof. Booker T. Washington, who believes that the Negro must tamely submit to all the wrongs heaped upon him in order to exist, while Prof. DuBois is equally positive that the Negro cannot survive in this country unless he manfully contends for his civil and his political rights.

Broad Axe. December 19, 1903. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The obdurate challenge to both men’s opinions was clearly stated by the State newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina on July 7, 1905, which commented on the report by Du Bois presented at the 10th annual conference at Atlanta University.

Probably the most important suggestion in the report is that there has been a progressive differentation [sic] of the negroes into economic and social classes, and that it is no longer just to consider the negroes here as a race unit. This is evidently an adroit move in the direction of sweeping away racial and color lines, and toward a merger of the two races in economic and social interests. This is impossible under the conditions and demands of our civilization. We cannot permit the color line to be unconsidered, any more than we could permit it to be made paler by intermarriage. The two races are now and forever distinct, no matter how closely may be their political and economic relations.

The State. July 7, 1905. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

On October 3, 1907, the Daily People of New York City, which was published by the Socialist Labor Party, reported on a speech delivered by Du Bois at the Brooklyn Institute, “The Negro in Large Cities.”

He discussed the movement of rural blacks to cities, especially those in the north and explored the motives and expectations of these internal migrants. He asserted that “the new South is an urban South; the old South was a rural South. The result is that we have to-day in Southern cities a great change and impulse toward better things, while in the country we have conditions not very far removed from slavery. Visitors to the South, casual tourists, and car-window sociologists forget this.” He argued that “the contrast between country and city in the South is much more [sic] greater than in the North.”

He addressed black urban crime, employment opportunities, and the duty of New York City which he describes as “a duty not simply to itself but to the whole country, because it is the greatest single centre [sic] of modern civilization in America… New York must attack and solve the phases of these problems which come to it and must bring to bear great wealth of intelligence and stamina which the whole land has poured into this island.” He cited three issues: housing, “good common schooling” and jobs for everyone.

Finally, Du Bois urged that “the city should see to it that the various avenues of uplift, of enlightenment, and encouragement which it is furnishing for its citizens should be open freely to its colored citizens, and they should be encouraged especially to take advantage of them. Perhaps in no other respect do Northern cities fail more in their duty than in this.”

He concluded “if you are interested in the south and its problems, if you want to help settle them according to justice and decency, your first step should be to clear your own skirts. So long as you are unjust, so long as I find difficulty in getting a simple meal of victuals in New York you can hardly cavil at Atlanta.”

Daily People. October 3, 1907. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Du Bois was a prolific writer throughout his life. Perhaps his most impactful book, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903. In 1912 he released The Quest of the Silver Fleece, a novel. On January 6 of that year, the Freeman, a black-owned newspaper in Indianapolis, reprinted a review from The Christian Register, a Unitarian weekly, which included references to the earlier work. The review was laudatory. It concludes:

The Souls the of Black Folks attained the desired end in the deep impression it made on the white consciousness of the age; it deepened the sense of complicity, it pierced self-complacency, it went far to arouse the will to just and contrite action. The Quest of the Silver Fleece makes the same sort of appeal, retells the story of race hardship and loss imposed by race pride and love of monopoly. It shows the Negro still ‘within the veil.’ But he is slowly emerging. He may indeed be said to have arrived, but his cause is still widely misunderstood and suffers both from popular distrust and popular indifference. His helpers and friends are few. Not for the Negro alone, but for our own honor and integrity, the safety of the Republic, we must reach a different state of mind on this great and vital subject.

Justice and opportunity are large and inclusive terms. They comprise the right to useful, happy living, growing out of the full equipment of human faculty and power in every member of our common family.

Freeman. January 6, 1912. 

Reference has been made to the rivalry between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. A snippet in the Macon Telegraph of Georgia on May 23, 1911 describes it in a nutshell.

Prof. W.E.B. DuBois (negro) refers to Booker Washington’s position on the race question as a ‘quiescent palliatory [sic] doctrine of surrender.’ No wonder the race problem is so hard to solve if that is the trouble with it.’

The Macon Daily Telegraph. May 23, 1911. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The National Review of Kansas City, Kansas was a short-lived black owned newspaper that lasted less than a year. On May 24, 1913 the paper ran a succinct argument that urged recognition by the adherents of both Washington and Du Bois that their works together encompassed the aspirations of black people.

There is no reason for any strife or ill feeling between those who believe in Dr. Washington and those who follow Dr. DuBois. Both are great men and doing a great work, Dr. DuBois on the literary, and Dr. Washington on the industrial side of life. The race does not need 10,000,000 scholars any more than it needs ten million farmers or mecchanics [sic], but we need some representatives in all branches. We could not get along very well without Dr. Washington or Dr. DuBois.

National Review. May 24, 1913. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

The day before the National Review article was published, the Plaindealer of Topeka ran two articles side by side, one extolling a speech by Du Bois to the people of Kansas City to a large and “very appreciative audience,” and the other describing a successful tour by Washington throughout a swathe of Virginia.

DuBois discussed four problems and “their relation to the Negro problem.” These are war, ‘the uplift of women”, the mistreatment of poor children, and “work and wages.” Washington “urged the Negroes everywhere he went to grasp the fundamental things of life; to get some land, build a good home, start a bank account, become reliable and progressive in labor, remain in the South on the land, keep out of Northern cities, economize time and money, draw the line hard and tight against and get an education which fits for service.”

Topeka Plaindealer. May 23, 1913. From Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922.

Washington died two years later on November 14, 1915. He was 59. Du Bois, who was about 15 years younger, was 95 when he died in Ghana in 1963. Throughout the five decades after Washington’s death, Du Bois remained prominent, at times controversial, in his advocacy of Pan-Africanism.

Washington was steadfast in being singularly focused in his mission. While he traveled frequently in support of the Tuskegee Institute, he remained grounded in his role as head of the fledgling university to the end. When he became seriously ill while visiting New York City, he was told he had only days to live. He insisted on returning to Tuskegee by train arriving only hours before his death.

Despite the conflicts that helped define their beliefs and methods, both men were engaged in the same struggle to achieve the full rights of citizenship and parity for their race in American life. The National Review had it right when it asserted that “We could not get along very well without Dr. Washington or Dr. DuBois.”


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