We all are familiar with the term “slavery” and the rich and complex history it holds for the United States of America. The basic more simplified version of Slavery posits Europeans, British and Spaniards, and then Americans along with many world leaders at the time profiting from the legal enslavement, buying, and selling of colored people, primarily from Africa. Millions of men, women and children were transported from their homelands to do extreme work in foreign places on both land and water. A more brutal description of slavery can be taken from the infamous Wilie Lynch Letter of 1712, “Take the meanest and most restless n*gger, strip him of his clothes in front of the remaining male n*ggers, the female, and the n*gger infant, tar and feather him, tie each leg to a different horse faced in opposite directions, set him a fire and beat both horses to pull him apart in front of the remaining n*gger. The next step is to take a bull whip and beat the remaining n*gger male to the point of death…”. 1 From 1500-1770, the 13 Colonies, soon to become the United States of America, accounted for 6% of the world’s slaves. 2 In the late 1770’s, post Revolutionary War, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin3 and cotton became King in the South of the United States. The creation of a state of the art cotton processing machine caused an increase in demand for slave labor to operate the cotton gins to maximize profits. Cotton, tobacco and other raw materials usually made their way to the North which was the epicenter for textiles factories, business, and banking. By 1825, the United States held 36% of the world’s slaves (1,750,000).4 By 1861 the morality and legality of the deep rooted economic and cultural act of slavery was questioned and contested and led to a breaking point. The Civil War divided the United States into separate governments with separate ethics and positions on Slavery. The President of the Union (Northern States) being Abraham Lincoln; represented anti-slavery states and stood against slavery. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, represented the Southern states that had a long-time dependence on slavery. On January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln put forth an executive order, known as the Emancipation Proclamation. This Proclamation, eventually brought about the freedom of Slaves in the US. The end of slavery officially came in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment. The United States, often thought as the “leader of the free world”, was one of the last countries to abolish slavery following countries such as Chile (1823), Uruguay (1842) and even the Dutch Colonies (1863) who had abolished it earlier5 The freedom from slavery came at a cost for African Americans who found themselves gathered onto another type of Amistad named “The Negro Problem”, that suppressed their independence for another 100 years and stunted the growth of the American democracy.
In 1886, Frederick Douglass gave a speech called “The Negro Problem” in which he actually deemed the term a “misnomer” and used his platform to question “whether the white man can ever be elevated to [a] plane of justice, humanity, and Christian civilization…”.6 This “problem” was understood to be the struggle between colored peoples and white society for human and civil liberties. This specific term also included the civilization and integration of the newly freed slave into modern society; as H.T Kealing stated “The emancipated Negro struggles up to-day against many obstacles”.7. The Negro Problem was inevitably inherent to people of color in America because after 246 years of brutal bondage, black people were required to learn the ways of white society they were born in but were unjustly denied. These circumstances- both unfortunate and unfair, yet raised up two of the most influential and empowering social justice warriors in early post-emancipation black history; Booker T. Washington and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (W.E.B Du Bois).
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born around 1858/59 in Franklin County, Virginia which according to the separation of the Union, qualified as the South. He, his siblings and mother were all, “…victim[s] of the system of slavery”8 He had an older brother, younger sister and eventually his mother and stepfather adopted a son after moving to Kanawha Valley in West Virginia. Primarily growing up during the Reconstruction Era, Washington worked at the salt and coal mines while yearning to “…get enough education to enable [himself] to read common books and newspapers”.9 To his surprise, he achieved things well beyond his simple childhood goals. In pursuit of his humble endeavors, Washington graduated from the Hampton Institute in 1875 where his potential and work ethic were nurtured by learning both industrial and general education and morals. Booker T. Washington, a former slave and educated individual developed a strong passion for solving “The Negro Problem”.10
W.E.B Du Bois had a very different upbringing. Besides being free born in the North, Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868; even his great-grandfather had been released from the grips of slavery thanks to his military service in the Colonies. This had not only granted his lineage freedom but also land and economic prosperity as Du Bois’ grandfather owned small farms11 Because of this and his mother’s determination, W.E.B went off to earn multiple forms and levels of education from High School, Undergraduate at Fisk, and a Ph.D. at Harvard where he first realized that his negro identification outweighed his economic and scholastic standing and achievements. It was during his years of study that he developed the idea of the “color line’ also referenced throughout his writings as a “veil”. However, while traveling overseas to Europe, he realized his role and “…great weight of responsibility that rests upon the younger generation of Negroes”.12 Du Bois’ scholastic experience greatly influenced his proposed solution to the Negro Problem as well as fueled his criticism for Booker T. Washington’s platform of reconciliation and wealth building.
Booker T. Washington shared many personal experiences from graduating and teaching at Hampton to developing the Tuskegee Institute; which was the physical manifestation of his ideal solutions of the Negro Problem. In his essay “Industrial Education for the Negro” within his published collection, The Negro Problem. Washington defines the initial solution to the Negro Problem as it , “[being] necessary for the Negro to learn the difference between being worked and working–to learn that being worked meant degradation, while working means civilization; that all forms of labor are honorable.”13 In his 1899 The Atlantic Article, he wrote, “…the Negro must begin at the bottom and lay a sure foundation…While the Negro is laying this foundation, he will need help and sympathy and justice from the law. Progress by any other method will be but temporary and superficial, and the end of it will be worse than the beginning”. 14
Meanwhile, W.E.B. Du Bois having been “…tossed boldly into the Negro Problem”15, saw the negro problem first as a cultural and psychological division of the Negro himself. Better explained as a “double consciousness”, “double self ” or “twoness”. Du Bois continues by saying “..—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” 16 W.E.B Du Bois expressed a strong psychological and sociological connection between being a Negro with origins from Africa living as an American Negro, which ultimately connected oneself to an identity crisis and attributed to one’s unacceptance by southern whites. This as well as his scholastic background, encouraged Du Bois to take a scientific approach towards the Negro Problem by “[basing] ethics upon fact-to make it [ethics] a science”17 to combat the denial of human and civil liberties to black people. Du Bois encouraged specifically black men to engage in a “ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality”. His general description of the Negro problem, comes from his essay “ The Talented Tenth”, in The Negro Problem. “Knowledge of life and its wider meaning, has been the point of the Negro’s deepest ignorance, and the sending out of teachers whose training has not been simply for bread winning, but also for human culture, has been of inestimable value in the training of these men”.18. Du Bois was also bold in criticizing Booker T. Washington claiming that Washington wanted men to give up their “1. The right to vote. 2. Civic equality 3. The education of youth according to ability”.19 When on the contrary- Mr. Washington simply wanted Whites and African Americans to “Cast down your bucket where you are –cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded” 20
“He [the negro] would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world” -William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (The Souls of Black Folk)
For Booker T. Washington, the solution to the Negro Problem and the attainment of full Human Rights and the guarantee of Civil Liberties required the reconciliation of whites and blacks. He strongly believed that in time, both races would develop a strong civil relationship via their economic relationship. This meant both the White and Black communities would have to aim for the common goal of friendship and through friendship, both communities would find economic opportunity. He also encouraged both races to look within their community for civil and economic opportunities to work together. In his famous speech in 1895, Washington addressed both Southern blacks and whites at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta- “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, he stated: “Cast down your bucket where you are”. Washington used the phrase “Cast down” to illustrate an image of a Sailor complaining of thirst in the midst of the ocean, as his Captain yells for him to “Cast down’ his bucket into the water for a drink . After explaining the talents bestowed upon the American Negro due to the curse of slavery as well as exhibiting the continued opportunities in industry and agriculture Washington continued: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South. Cast[ing] down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories”.21 Washington integrated all of these concepts in the establishment of Tuskegee University in 1881.
In his autobiography, Up From Slavery , Washington speaks of the many tribulations of starting the University from Chapter 8 –“Teaching School in a Stable and Hen House” to Chapter 10- “A Harder Task Than Making Bricks without Straw” and Chapter 11-“Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie on Them”. However, Washington’s glories in all of those tribulations because the school gradually received the generosity of yearly donors and by 1905 “produced more self-made millionaires than Harvard, Yale and Princeton combined.” All due to the “casting down” of the southern blacks into the industries of their forefathers and the “casting down” of Southern Whites into the graduates of the Tuskegee Institute and hundreds of other Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ that would come.
Following the development of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) which resembled Du Bois’ Niagara Movement (1905), he established The Crisis Magazine that became the voice of the black population in the United States. In 1947, Du Bois submitted ” An Appeal to the World” on behalf of the NAACP to the United Nations. This was to be a “Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to minorities in the case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress”. Du Bois and other authors explain the unfortunate crime of discrimination in America and effects of it on the Black American population.” A nation which boldly declared “All men are created equal”, proceeded to build its economy on chattel slavery…”, Du Bois continues to explain that, “..poverty, ignorance, disease and crime has been forced on these unfortunate victims of greed..” 22
The NAACP was and is still used to combat these inequalities that were produced by anti-black laws and sentiments, Black codes and Jim Crowe. Du Bois’ Appeal to the United Nations was the first of its kind, however was never addressed by the UN. The NAACP was one of the first national organizations that represented and fought for the equality and progression of ALL people of color and was extremely active during the Civil Rights movement.
Booker T. Washington and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois were very representative of the South and the North’s methods for demanding human rights and civil liberties for African Americans. It was because of their doctrines and actions that African Americans achieved these rights in the United States. Although both men held very different definitions and solutions to the Negro Problem, each man influenced a great number of African Americans to pursue industrial and general education as a means of weaponry to “fight” for various rights in America. Many prominent black figures such as George Washington Carver (prominent scientist) graduated from Tuskegee Institute and figures such as Thurgood Marshall (previous Supreme Court Justice) have given much support to the NAACP.
Through the lens of slavery as a Southern Black, Booker T. Washington was able to equip the Negro to live in a society of disadvantage and unfairness. Through the lens of higher education and experience as a Northern Black, Du Bois was able to encourage the Negro man to lead the petition for political and civil rights. Through the lens of the Negro Problem, both men paved the long road to freedom.
The world should not pass judgment upon the Negro, and especially the Negro youth, too quickly or too harshly. The Negro boy has obstacles, discouragements, and temptations to battle with that are little know to those not situated as he is. – Booker T. Washington (Up From Slavery)