Two prominent writers of the early 1900s are primarily responsible for bringing the study of the African American to the educational institutions of America. These are Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Both men had to struggle fiercely to achieve the educations they eventually gained, in a world in which it was believed that a black man was not capable of the same depth and breadth of intellectual thought expected of a white man.
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While Du Bois was the first black man to achieve a Harvard degree, Washington trained to be a teacher at what is now Hampton University, eventually receiving an honorary Masters degree from Harvard and an honorary Doctorate from Dartmouth College. Both men wrote extensively, and often from very different viewpoints, regarding the position of the black man in the Reconstruction Era, having a profound impact upon how these individuals were perceived by the greater American public and playing large roles in both establishing educational facilities for black children and in organizing advocacy groups for the black people.
As can be seen in his autobiography, Up From Slavery and is followed up later in his book Working with the Hands, Washington felt that the best way to help the black man was to train him in ‘industrial’ type jobs. Writing his autobiography in 1901, Washington details his rise from the ranks of slavery to the position of a degreed professor even as he highlights the various reasons why he feels an industrial education is the correct course of action for the majority of black men and women.
This is brought out clearly in Working with the Hands as he notes that education merely as a means of reading and writing correctly did not seem sufficient for the needs of the black community even when he was a small boy. The goal of education thus emerged as being two-fold, first to provide black people with the knowledge and education prized by whites, and second to give them the means to make their lives and the lives of other black people better through industrial training in fields where they were likely to find easy entrance to paid work environments. “We wanted to teach them to study actual things instead of mere books alone” (Washington, 1996, p. 60).
Du Bois, as can be seen in “Of the Training of Black Men” in The Souls of Black Folk as well as many of his other writings, felt that the black man could best benefit from the same exact type of classical education deemed important for white men, making him fit for the same positions then filled by only white men. “They must first have the common schools to teach them to read, write and cipher; and they must have higher schools to teach teachers for the common schools … If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be given him was the establishment of schools to train Negro teachers” (p. 66-67).
Du Bois further argues in The Gift of Black Folk that black people have much to offer to white people in terms of their general outlook on life, their ability to appreciate the deeper beauty of the world and their intensive connections with the rhythms of the earth. The knowledge of the black people that was not taught in the schools was needed to fully round out the knowledge of the white people that was included in a classical education.
Although both Washington and Du Bois felt it was vital that a black man have a decent education and worked diligently to advance the cause, they disagreed rather strongly on the type of education that would be most beneficial to the black community.
While Washington recognized that traditional ‘book’ learning such as was taught in the white colleges turned out students that were at once more likely to want the finer things in life and less able to obtain these things for themselves, Du Bois indicated that the classical education was necessary to turn out students capable of serving in the more professional services such as doctors and lawyers that the black community needed. While each man acknowledged the importance of the ideas of the other, they differed on the degree to which this education should be offered and the best means of offering these options to the black student.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America. New York: Washington Square Press, 1924 (reprinted 1970).
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Washington, Booker T. Working with the Hands. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1904.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.