W.E.B. Du Bois at Odds With Booker T. Washington
Du Bois voiced his first public criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk, a series of essays permeated with his growing resentment. What caught the public eye was the section entitled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” which, though it recognized the Tuskegee educator’s achievements, unmistakably took him to task on a number of counts. Washington’s educational program, declared Du Bois, was “unnecessarily narrow,” and had developed into a “gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.” His failure to see, in Du Bois’s estimation, that no educational system could exist “on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college or university,” and his corresponding overemphasis on industrial training was stunting the growth of Black higher education and destroying the opportunity for developing the best minds of the race.
As Du Bois admitted, however, some of the criticism of Washington stemmed from “mere envy” and from “the disappointment of displaced demagogues and the spite of narrow minds.” Even Du Bois’s own attacks occasionally showed a distinctly personal element. But Washington could afford to me magnanimous; the fact that the Anti-Slavery Society, a British organization, should have felt it necessary to ask his advice before extending a welcome to Du Bois demonstrates how completely Washington dominated the scene. It was this very domination which the opposition group so resented. Their differences with Washington sprang from a sincere and significant disagreement on the approach to Black advancement, but mainly they feared that the ascendancy of the “Tuskegee Machine,” as Du Bois called it, had given Washington a power over Black affairs which they felt should not be vested in any individual.
In the realm of civil rights Washington had spoken against disenfranchisement and lynching, but his protest was far too mild for Du Bois, and his voluntary surrender of full citizenship had “without a shadow of a doubt” aided White society’s supposed design to take away the Black ballot and assign Blacks to “a distinct status of civil inferiority.” Furthermore, Du bois asserts, Washington’s emphasis on self-help released White society, Northern or Southern, from any and all responsibility to the betterment of its Black counterpart. It was not a problem for one race or for one region, as Washington tended to think, but a problem for the nation as a whole. For Du Bois, a Black could not hope for success “unless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather aroused and encouraged, by the initiative of the richer and wiser environing group.”
Finally, Du Bois warned of a group of “educated and thoughtful” Blacks who were alarmed by some of Washington’s theories and who had never accepted whole-heartedly his leadership, thrust upon them as it had been by “outer pressure.” Their criticism had been largely hushed by public opinion, but they now felt “in conscience bound” to ask of the nation three things: the right to vote, civic equality, and the education of youth according to ability. So far as Washington preached thrift, patience, and industrial training for the masses, they would support him. “But,” Dubois concludes, “so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty and voting, belittles 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.”
During the last twelve years of his life Washington was pursued relentlessly by his self-appointed gadfly, Du Bois. Soon abandoning the measured, restrained tones of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois elaborated his attack to take issue with Washington on almost every point of his program. This is not to say that the public viewed them as champions of opposing armies, as Du Bois often characterized their ideological relationship; for most laymen of the time had not even heard of Du Bois. But within the narrow circle of Blacks anxious to have a part in determining race leadership and program, the struggle between Washington and Du Bois was of real significance.
Except for a common dedication to the cause of race advancement, the personalities of the two men seem to differ as widely as their ideas. Washington was a practical realist, interested primarily in attaining tangible goals; Du Bois was romantic, willing and eager to fight for principle even at the expense of the surer gains he saw as the fruits of compromise. In contrast to Du Bois’s poetic temperament, Washington’s was simple, direct, prosaic. Though Du Bois as an intellectual liked to deal with ideas, while Washington preferred men and things, Du Bois was by far the more emotional. Washington was first and last an American, while Du Bois characterized himself first and last as Black. Washington possessed a genuine humility and an ability to identify himself with the common man; Du Bois was imperious, egocentric, and aloof. To Du Bois, Washington’s faith in man and God was somewhat naive.
In his critique of the Tuskegee philosophy, Du Bois denied the hypothesis on which Washington’s program rested: the necessity of cooperation with the White South. He could not agree that there was a solidarity of interest between the Southern Black and the Southern White which made the race problem one to be solved from within. The price for cooperation and support, according to Do Bois, was too high: “Today the young Negro of the South who would succeed cannot be frank and outspoken. . . . He must flatter and be pleasant, endure petty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong. . . . His real thoughts, his real aspirations, must be guarded in whispers.” Even had he rationally accepted Washington’s premise, Du Bois would likely have found it hard to follow him emotionally; for to Du Bois the White man was an enemy rather than a friend.
Since both men were educators, their divergence in educational philosophy became the focal point of their most widely publicized and ideologically telling disagreement. To Du Bois, an intellectual who had no doubt that the really important things in life lay in the realm of the mind, Washington’s emphasis on bank accounts and ownership of property was an abhorrent debasement of human (and especially Black) potential. Deploring the fact that “for every social ill the panacea of wealth has been urged,” he insisted that “the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.” He wailed at Washington’s sense that education should begin at the bottom and expand upward.
He therefore championed the cause of higher education for the best Black minds at institutions like Fisk, Atlanta, and Howard, setting forth the doctrine of the “Talented Tenth,” a term which became the trade-mark of his educational philosophy: “The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”
Washington vigorously denied that he opposed the higher training and ambition of the brighter minds of the race. “I would not by any means have it understood,” he insisted, “that I would limit or circumscribe the mental development of the Negro student.” Recalling the many industrial schools of Germany, where Du Bois, ironically, received much of his education, he made plain his opposition to the “ill-advised” notion that industrial education meant class education to which Blacks should be confined. Industrial education “should be given in a large measure to any race, regardless of color, which is in the same stage of development as the Negro,” he maintained.