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US History II (American Yawp)
Primary Source Reading: Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963): The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
EASILY the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876 is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began
at the time when war memories and ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercial development was dawning; a sense
of doubt and hesitation overtook the freedmen’s sons,-then it was that his leading began. Mr. Washington came, with a simple definite
programme, at the psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes,
and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. His programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and si-
lence as to civil and political rights, was not wholly original; the Free Negroes from 1830 up to wartime had striven to build industrial
schools, and the American Missionary Association had from the first taught various trades; and Price and others had sought a way of
honorable alliance with the best of the Southerners. But Mr. Washington first indissolubly linked these things; he put enthusiasm, unlim-
ited energy, and perfect faith into this programme, and changed it from a by-path into a veritable Way of Life. And the tale of the meth-
ods by which he did this is a fascinating study of human life.
It startled the nation to hear a Negro advocating such a programme after many decades of bitter complaint; it startled and won the ap-
plause 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.
To gain the sympathy and coöperation of the various elements comprising the white South was Mr. Washington’s first task; and this, at
the time Tuskegee was founded, seemed, for a black man, well-nigh impossible. And yet ten years later it was done in the word spoken
at Atlanta: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual
progress.” This “Atlanta Compromise” is by all odds the most notable thing in Mr. Washington’s career. The South interpreted it in differ-
ent ways: the radicals received it as a complete surrender of the demand for civil and political equality; the conservatives, as a gener-
ously conceived working basis for mutual understanding. So both approved it, and to-day its author is certainly the most distinguished
Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with the largest personal following.
Next to this achievement comes Mr. Washington’s work in gaining place and consideration in the North. Others less shrewd and tactful
had formerly essayed to sit on these two stools and had fallen between them; but as Mr. Washington knew the heart of the South from
birth and training, so by singular insight he intuitively grasped the spirit of the age which was dominating the North. And so thoroughly
did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity, that the picture of a lone black
boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One
wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this.
And yet this very singleness of vision and thorough oneness with his age is a mark of the successful man. It is as though Nature must
needs make men narrow in order to give them force. So Mr. Washington’s cult has gained unquestioning followers, his work has won-
derfully prospered, his friends are legion, and his enemies are confounded. To-day he stands as the one recognized spokesman of his
ten million fellows, and one of the most notable figures in a nation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticise a life which,
beginning with so little, has done so much. And yet the time is come when one may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mis-
takes and shortcomings of Mr. Washington’s career, as well as of his triumphs, without being thought captious or envious, and without
forgetting that it is easier to do ill than well in the world.
The criticism that has hitherto met Mr. Washington has not always been of this broad character. In the South especially has he had to
walk warily to avoid the harshest judgments,-and naturally so, for he is dealing with the one subject of deepest sensitiveness to that
section. Twice-once when at the Chicago celebration of the Spanish-American War he alluded to the color-prejudice that is “eating
away the vitals of the South,” and once when he dined with President Roosevelt-has the resulting Southern criticism been violent
enough to threaten seriously his popularity. In the North the feeling has several times forced itself into words, that Mr. Washington’s
counsels of submission overlooked certain elements of true manhood, and that his educational programme was unnecessarily narrow.
Usually, however, such criticism has not found open expression, although, too, the spiritual sons of the Abolitionists have not been pre-
pared to acknowledge that the schools founded before Tuskegee, by men of broad ideals and self-sacrificing spirit, were wholly failures
or worthy of ridicule. While, then, criticism has not failed to follow Mr. Washington, yet the prevailing public opinion of the land has been
but too willing to deliver the solution of a wearisome problem into his hands, and say, “If that is all you and your race ask, take it.”
Among his own people, however, Mr. Washington has encountered the strongest and most lasting opposition, amounting at times to bit-
terness, and even to-day continuing strong and insistent even though largely silenced in outward expression by the public opinion of
the nation. Some of this opposition is, of course, mere envy; the disappointment of displaced demagogues and the spite of narrow
minds. But aside from this, there is among educated and thoughtful colored men in all parts of the land a feeling of deep regret, sorrow,
and apprehension at the wide currency and ascendancy which some of Mr. Washington’s theories have gained. These same men ad-
mire his sincerity of purpose, and are willing to forgive much to honest endeavor which is doing something worth the doing. They
coöperate with Mr. Washington as far as they conscientiously can; and, indeed, it is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that,
steering as he must between so many diverse interests and opinions, he so largely retains the respect of all.
But the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing. It leads some of the best of the critics to unfortunate silence
and paralysis of effort, and others to burst into speech so passionately and intemperately as to lose listeners. Honest and earnest criti-
cism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,-criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders
by those led,-this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society. If the best of the American Negroes receive by outer
pressure a leader whom they had not recognized before, manifestly there is here a certain palpable gain. Yet there is also 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. The way in which this is done is at once the most elementary and the nicest problem of social growth. History is but the record
of such group-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its type and character! And of all types and kinds, what can be more in-
structive than the leadership of a group within a group?-that curious double movement where real progress may be negative and ac-
tual advance be relative retrogression. All this is the social student’s inspiration and despair.
Now in the past the American Negro has had instructive experience in the choosing of group leaders, founding thus a peculiar dynasty
which in the light of present conditions is worth while studying. When sticks and stones and beasts form the sole environment of a peo-
ple, their attitude is largely one of determined opposition to and conquest of natural forces. But when to earth and brute is added an en-
vironment of men and ideas, then the attitude of the imprisoned group may take three main forms,-a feeling of revolt and revenge; an
attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or, finally, a determined effort at self-realization and self-
development despite environing opinion. The influence of all of these attitudes at various times can be traced in the history of the
American Negro, and in the evolution of his successive leaders.
Before 1750, while the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves, there was in all leadership or attempted leadership
but the one motive of revolt and revenge,-typified in the terrible Maroons, the Danish blacks, and Cato of Stono, and veiling all the
Americas in fear of insurrection. The liberalizing tendencies of the latter half of the eighteenth century brought, along with kindlier rela-
tions between black and white, thoughts of ultimate adjustment and assimilation. Such aspiration was especially voiced in the earnest
songs of Phyllis, in the martyrdom of Attucks, the fighting of Salem and Poor, the intellectual accomplishments of Banneker and Derham,
and the political demands of the Cuffes.
Stern financial and social stress after the war cooled much of the previous humanitarian ardor. The disappointment and impatience of
the Negroes at the persistence of slavery and serfdom voiced itself in two movements. The slaves in the South, aroused undoubtedly
by vague rumors of the Haytian revolt, made three fierce attempts at insurrection,-in 1800 under Gabriel in Virginia, in 1822 under
Vesey in Carolina, and in 1831 again in Virginia under the terrible Nat Turner. In the Free States, on the other hand, a new and curious at-
tempt at self-development was made. In Philadelphia and New York color-prescription led to a withdrawal of Negro communicants from
white churches and the formation of a peculiar socio-religious institution among the Negroes known as the African Church,-an organi-
zation still living and controlling in its various branches over a million of men.
Walker’s wild appeal against the trend of the times showed how the world was changing after the coming of the cotton-gin. By 1830
slavery seemed hopelessly fastened on the South, and the slaves thoroughly cowed into submission. The free Negroes of the North, in-
spired by the mulatto immigrants from the West Indies, began to change the basis of their demands; they recognized the slavery of
slaves, but insisted that they themselves were freemen, and sought assimilation and amalgamation with the nation on the same terms
with other men. Thus, Forten and Purvis of Philadelphia, Shad of Wilmington, Du Bois of New Haven, Barbadoes of Boston, and others,
strove singly and together as men, they said, not as slaves; as “people of color,” not as “Negroes.” The trend of the times, however, re-
fused them recognition save in individual and exceptional cases, considered them as one with all the despised blacks, and they soon
found themselves striving to keep even the rights they formerly had of voting and working and moving as freemen. Schemes of migra-
tion and colonization arose among them; but these they refused to entertain, and they eventually turned to the Abolition movement as a
Here, led by Remond, Nell, Wells-Brown, and Douglass, a new period of self-assertion and self-development dawned. To be sure, ulti-
mate freedom and assimilation was the ideal before the leaders, but the assertion of the manhood rights of the Negro by himself was
the main reliance, and John Brown’s raid was the extreme of its logic. After the war and emancipation, the great form of Frederick
Douglass, the greatest of American Negro leaders, still led the host. Self-assertion, especially in political lines, was the main pro-
gramme, and behind Douglass came Elliot, Bruce, and Langston, and the Reconstruction politicians, and, less conspicuous but of
greater social significance Alexander Crummell and Bishop Daniel Payne.
Then came the Revolution of 1876, the suppression of the Negro votes, the changing and shifting of ideals, and the seeking of new
lights in the great night. Douglass, in his old age, still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood,-ultimate assimilationthrough
self-assertion, and on no other terms. For a time Price arose as a new leader, destined, it seemed, not to give up, but to re-state the old
ideals in a form less repugnant to the white South. But he passed away in his prime. Then came the new leader. Nearly all the former
ones had become leaders by the silent suffrage of their fellows, had sought to lead their own people alone, and were usually, save
Douglass, little known outside their race. But Booker T. Washington arose as essentially the leader not of one race but of two,-a com-
promiser between the South, the North, and the Negro. Naturally the Negroes resented, at first bitterly, signs of compromise which sur-
rendered their civil and political rights, even though this was to be exchanged for larger chances of economic development. The rich
and dominating North, however, was not only weary of the race problem, but was investing largely in Southern enterprises, and wel-
comed any method of peaceful coöperation. Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr. Washington’s leadership;
and the voice of criticism was hushed.
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to
make his programme unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an
economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher
aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and
the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.
Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr.
Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all
the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly
all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses,
and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.
In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black peo-
ple give up, at least for the present, three things,-
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth,-
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has
been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this
tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:
1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt,
helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effec-
tive progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance
for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. And
Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:
1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern compet-
itive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.
2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap
the manhood of any race in the long run.
3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro
common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by
This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually de-
scended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate
the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only
hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this
programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii,
and the Philippines,-for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?
The other class of Negroes who cannot agree with Mr. Washington has hitherto said little aloud. They deprecate the sight of scattered
counsels, of internal disagreement; and especially they dislike making their just criticism of a useful and earnest man an excuse for a
general discharge of venom from small-minded opponents. Nevertheless, the questions involved are so fundamental and serious that it
is difficult to see how men like the Grimkes, Kelly Miller, J. W. E. Bowen, and other representatives of this group, can much longer be
silent. Such men feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things:
1. The right to vote.
2. Civic equality.
3. The education of youth according to ability.
They acknowledge Mr. Washington’s invaluable service in counselling patience and courtesy in such demands; they do not ask that ig-
norant black men vote when ignorant whites are debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not be applied;
they know that the low social level of the mass of the race is responsible for much discrimination against it, but they also know, and the
nation knows, that relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation; they seek the abatement of
this relic of barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and pampering by all agencies of social power from the Associated Press
to the Church of Christ. They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schools supplemented by thorough in-
dustrial training; but they are surprised that a man of Mr. Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational system ever has
rested or can rest on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college and university, and they insist that there is a demand for a
few such institutions throughout the South to train the best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men, and leaders.
This group of men honor Mr. Washington for his attitude of conciliation toward the white South; they accept the “Atlanta Compromise” in
its broadest interpretation; they recognize, with him, many signs of promise, many men of high purpose and fair judgment, in this sec-
tion; they know that no easy task has been laid upon a region already tottering under heavy burdens. But, nevertheless, they insist that
the way to truth and right lies in straightforward honesty, not in indiscriminate flattery; in praising those of the South who do well and
criticising uncompromisingly those who do ill; in taking advantage of the opportunities at hand and urging their fellows to do the same,
but at the same time in remembering that only a firm adherence to their higher ideals and aspirations will ever keep those ideals within
the realm of possibility. They do not expect that the free right to vote, to enjoy civic rights, and to be educated, will come in a moment;
they do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; but they are absolutely certain that the
way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that
the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist
continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that
black boys need education as well as white boys.
In failing thus to state plainly and unequivocally the legitimate demands of their people, even at the cost of opposing an honored leader,
the thinking classes of American Negroes would shirk a heavy responsibility,-a responsibility to themselves, a responsibility to the
struggling masses, a responsibility to the darker races of men whose future depends so largely on this American experiment, but espe-
cially a responsibility to this nation,-this common Fatherland. It is wrong to encourage a man or a people in evil-doing; it is wrong to aid
and abet a national crime simply because it is unpopular not to do so. The growing spirit of kindliness and reconciliation between the
North and South after the frightful differences of a generation ago ought to be a source of deep congratulation to all, and especially to
those whose mistreatment caused the war; but if that reconciliation is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death of those
same black men, with permanent legislation into a position of inferiority, then those black men, if they are really men, are called upon by
every consideration of patriotism and loyalty to oppose such a course by all civilized methods, even though such opposition involves
disagreement with Mr. Booker T. Washington. We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of dis-
aster to our children, black and white.
First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the
past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent
course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the
ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is
just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,-needs it for the sake of her
own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant
Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the edu-
cated see a menace in his upward development, while others-usually the sons of the masters-wish to help him to rise. National opin-
ion has enabled this last class to maintain the Negro common schools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life, and limb.
Through the pressure of the money-makers, the Negro is in danger of being reduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts;
the workingmen, and those of the educated who fear the Negro, have united to disfranchise him, and some have urged his deportation;
while the passions of the ignorant are easily aroused to lynch and abuse any black man. To praise this intricate whirl of thought and
prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in praising Governor Aycock,
exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman, is not only sane, but the imper-
ative duty of thinking black men.
In his failure to realize and impress this last point, Mr. Washington is especially to be criticised. His doctrine has tended to make the
whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pes-
simistic spectators; 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.
The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly
wronged and is still wronging. The North-her co-partner in guilt-cannot salve her conscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot set-
tle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by “policy” alone. If worse come to worst, can the moral fibre of this country survive the
slow throttling and murder of nine millions of men?
The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,-a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their
greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands
and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless
host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belit-
tles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,-so far as he, the
South, or the Nation, does this,-we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive
for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain for-
get: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain un-
alienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
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