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Margaret Washington : Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois

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Maragret Washington The great race leader of 1900 was Booker T. Washington. And Booker T. Washington represents African American hopefulness. We as a people are a hopeful people. And Booker T. Washington personified that hope as he saw the problem. And African Americans in 1900 adored Booker T. Washington for his contributions, for his answers, for his solutions to many of the problems that African Americans felt in the South. So he was much loved. And his program was one of what some people call, industrial education, but actually it was local, it was vocational education. Basically he was proclaiming that African Americans were going to have to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. And he made that famous 1895 speech in Atlanta at the Cotton Exposition, which essentially catapulted him to fame as far as whites were concerned. As far as African Americans were concerned in the South, Booker T. Washington was already quite popular, because he had his school in Tuskegee and it was for African Americans a solution, especially if you lived in the South. He was advocating something that many people didn't agree with but others felt that it was one way of looking at solutions for 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. So yes, he did suggest and proclaim a kind of anachronistic vocational system, we can't deny that. That's one aspect of his program. The other aspect of his program as a solution to the problems for African Americans was to create their own businesses, to create the National Negro Business League. For African Americans to set up independent entrepreneurships and to depend on each other. So his solution was one of self-help. And Booker T. Washington was very prominent. Whites loved him, blacks loved him. Not all blacks loved him and he had his adversaries within the black community.

I don't think there's any question that Booker T. Washington did accept segregation. Booker T. Washington was an accommodationist. And his program was to accommodate the social and political situation of the South. And that's what he proclaimed in what's called Atlanta Compromise speech. That is unfortunately why whites in the South anyway loved him so much, because what he said in that speech to whites of the South was, cast down your bucket where you are, cast it down among the black people who have been your friend for generations, who when you went off to fight the Civil War, kept the fields and took care of your wives and children. Then he says to the African Americans, cast down your bucket where you are, cast it down among the white men who have helped you to build up the South all these generations. And then he says and does something that was truly astounding, he held up his hand and he said, in all things social, we can be as separate as the five fingers on the hand and as one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. So on the one hand he was saying to whites that you don't have to worry about us wanting to integrate with you. And he was saying to blacks that we can work with the whites to make the South great and make the South important.

Yes he was saying that he thought both races could win. African Americans could win because they would attain and maintain the good will of whites. And whites could win because they would be as he said, living amongst the most peaceful, loyal and loving race that the world had ever known.

Du Bois was not in complete disagreement with Booker T. Washington. Du Bois referred to Booker T. Washington as the greatest black leader since Frederick Douglass. And also referred to Washington as the most distinguished man, black or white, to come out of the South since the Civil War. So it wasn't as though Du Bois disagreed with Washington's program, but Du Bois felt that there was room for more than one solution to the problem. And just as Washington advocated vocational education for the majority of African Americans in the South, Du Bois felt yes, there were African Americans in the South, perhaps the majority who at that point in their historical development were better off with vocational education. But there were others among the race who needed to be the individuals who were at the top, the individuals who did the training, the individuals who were the intelligentsia. And that you needed this group of people. And I think that was the basis of their disagreement. Not that Du Bois felt that Washington was completely wrong, but that Washington needed to have more than just one way of approaching the problem. And then of course the other issue on which they disagreed was Du Bois did not feel that you could accommodate injustice. And he felt that Washington was placing upon his shoulders an extremely heavy responsibility by advocating that African Americans accommodate the social and political system in the South.

Of course one has to understand that Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois came from different backgrounds. Washington was born a slave. Washington had worked his way from being a slave to being a coal miner as a little boy, to working for a wealthy white woman, to being the favorite Samuel Chapman Armstrong at Hampton Institute in Virginia, to setting up this school in Tuskegee. He had worked every step of the way and he had worked very, very hard. So he was a Southerner. He was from a slave background. And he felt that he understood the African Americans in the South better than other leaders. Du Bois was a free-born man, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, of a free-born mother and a father. He had grown up in a white environment. He had graduated from a high school in which he was the only black. He had studied at Fisk, then he had studied at Harvard. Got a B.A., cum laude, an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard. Then he studied two years at Berlin. So his background was very erudite. And Washington was extremely intelligent, but he did not have the formal education which Du Bois had. So their experiences were different and this is very important in understanding how they saw the future of the race. But it's also important to keep in mind that for both of them, race uplift was the central key.

Race uplift meant putting the African American people first. And both leaders wanted to do that. For Washington, race uplift meant having African Americans work on the soil, which they had done for many generations, to create businesses within the African American community, to become a self-reliant people. And Washington felt that if you get economic power, then all these other things will eventually come to you, but that if you don't have that, then you're going to the white man empty-handed. But power and economic power for Washington was central. And so in that sense that's what he meant by uplift. And it had at its core, self-help. For Du Bois, race uplift also meant putting the race first. But he had a different paradigm. For him you couldn't separate economic and political and social, because if you did then African Americans would possibly gain an economic foothold, but they wouldn't have any advantages in terms of electoral process. He also felt that if you didn't demand all of these areas which as citizens we already had a right to, then you were really selling your people short. So the vision of race uplift for each one was quite different. Ultimately it's important to keep in mind that they all wanted, they both wanted the same thing and they both put African Americans first. And Du Bois made that decision consciously whereas Washington sort of took it for granted. And again I think it comes from their background, because Washington was a slave and he had seen the sadness and the downtrodden aspects of black life. He had grown up with it. So yes, he put his race first and that was something that he didn't really have to make a conscious commitment to. But Du Bois wrote in his diary in something like 1892 or '93 that he was going to commit himself to his race. And it's almost as though he had to make that a personal commitment. But the fascinating aspect of Du Bois's life is that once he did go South as a student to Fisk, then he made that commitment. And he never wavered from it.

1900 is a period of demoralization. But I think more importantly it's a period of optimism for African Americans. African Americans feel that things were going to get better. They have two very prominent leaders who believe that things are going to get better. And even though they are working in different avenues, we have to keep in mind that they're working toward a solution to this problem. And they have the ear of the people, the African American people on these issues. So there is a sense of hope. Part of that of course is the fact that it's a new century. It's a new day. And daylight brings hope. You get depressed at night, but as one British philosopher said, "Hope makes a bad supper, but a great dinner." And for African Americans it's 1900, they're not slaves. Yes, they've had a bad time, Jim Crow is there, but the world is open to them and it's a big world. And so African Americans feel this sense of hope, it's infectious, the nation feels it. And African Americans however they're disfranchised are part of the nation and they want things to get better and they're working to make it better. And they have these two pivotal leaders to look toward, each in their own way extremely important.

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