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David Levering Lewis : The Importance of Education
David Levering Lewis There was a very famous leader in Atlanta who thought that education was appropriate, but on the whole the view was "If you're going to keep people down, you have to keep them ignorant. And so nothing personal, but we just don't want to recognize the attributes that man of learning would bring. Quite threatening, those would be." And so someone like Dubois was a virtual freak from the point of view of the ethos of the South. And there were numbers like Dubois who, if not with his stellar accomplishments, nonetheless, had a commitment to and a belief in higher education as the road out of serfdom. Not for everyone. Everyone appreciated that in society some people as laborers fit their niche well but that effective leadership required a decent education. And that was anathema within this settlement of the Jim Crow settlement that then prevailed.

The education business is a little murky because by 1900 it has been pretty well decided that a certain amount of education was required to make the system of repression work. You had to have people who showed up punctually. You had to have people who took their orders obediently and understand them fully. And so there was a level of education which had been -- a consensus had been arrived at. The danger from the point of view of this apartheid arrangement was that you would have creeping literacy and creeping knowledge and so you had to have a ceiling and beyond that ceiling no one safely should be allowed to go.

"Well, we've got to have the ballot. We've got to get it back." That, Dubois becomes quite clear about, if not in 1900, by 1901-1902. And the other is that higher education, if it's not for everybody, and it isn't for all Americans, irrespective of race, he would have said, but higher education has to be available on the basis of merit. And without that, we will have a leadership class that is acephalous that is at the whim and beck and call of people whose interests are not our own.

Racially separate institutions, Dubois concluded, weren't going to give the results that African Americans wanted simply because they wouldn't have the leverage to make those separate institutions ones of parity. There would always be a disequilibrium. Philosophically, Dubois may have had no problem with a great African American institution. On the other hand, he always believed ultimately in the co-mingling of groups and the interplay of talents and in the collaboration of groups. He was somewhat equivocal on that point, but on the point of racial segregation as it existed in the South, he was in adamant opposition and, indeed, as it began to exist in the North, he opposed it resolutely.

The commitment to literacy was constant on the part of African Americans. And the percentages of literacy by the end of the century, by 1900, basic literacy has galloped ahead. People believed that education, of course, was the turnstile for advancement. And even in this South of Jim Crow separation and disparate allocation of resources the ordinary person believed that if he or she dutifully became a mason, a carpenter a home economics teacher that a farmer with some knowledge of agronomy, that he or she could in her life, in his life, make a difference. Only later, I suppose, did it become apparent to large numbers of people that this kind of education, whether well intentioned or not by the philanthropists of the North like Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers, who began pouring money into Tuskegee and Hampton and such places -- only later did it occur to them, did they realize that the kind of education they were getting, whether well intentioned or not, was for the last century and that industrialized -- that in the industrialization of a country galloping ahead increasingly meant that they were trained for the wrong occupations, or occupations so marginal that that in fact they promise very little.

The students at Hampton and Tuskegee are elated by the opportunity to matriculate through those institutions even if men and women like Dubois and Ida Wells would say, "They really are, you know, giving a pretty short shrift to their clientele." But they didn't know it and, indeed, in many cases they weren't short shrifted. In many cases the training did correspond to the needs and talents and there were break-throughs, to be sure. But the important thing is context, I suppose, that the design of the educational system in the South for African Americans and, indeed, any institution for African Americans, the design of it was one of constraints, one of restraint, one of confinement, one of limitation.

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