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While there is much societal debate around the objectives, structure, and curriculum of public schools, we cannot deny that Blacks historically have placed a high premium on acquiring education.
Traditionally, we’ve associated education with social equality, upward mobility and civil rights in America. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that Black people, even while under the yoke of enslavement, and in an oppressive social environment that formally and informally prohibited the promotion or acquisition of Black literacy, taught themselves and their kinsfolk under the penalty of torture and even death.
James D. Anderson, in his important work, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, demonstrates the primacy Blacks historically placed on education and the eagerness with which they pursued this ambition.
So great was this drive for education that Anderson credits freedmen with being the first native southerners to “campaign for universal, state-supported public education in the United States.” According to Anderson, John W. Alvord, the General Superintendent of Schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau, estimated in an 1866 report (based on his extensive travels and that of his field agents) that approximately 500 autonomous Black schools existed in former confederate states.
The venerable scholar and social commentator W.E.B. DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts just two years after Alvord’s “discovery,” but would soon establish himself as a leading advocate and visionary concerning the question of Black education for the first half of the 20th Century.
In a long and accomplished career as professor, author, literary critic, magazine editor, NAACP founder, Pan African pioneer, sociologist and historian, DuBois wrote, lectured, and provided commentary about almost every major aspect of Black life in America.
Appreciating DuBois’ contributions, Dr. Martin Luther King both eulogized DuBois at the historic March on Washington in August 28, 1963 (DuBois died in Ghana the previous day) and in February of 1968 where he delivered a salutatory speech honoring his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Acknowledging DuBois as “one of the most remarkable men of our time,” King attempted to capture his essence by noting,
“History has to reﬂect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to ﬁll this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded discloses the great dimensions of the man.”
Even King’s eloquence failed to encapsulate the full range of DuBois’ significance, which is understandable given that most complete books fail in this endeavor as well. In addition to his importance as a historian was DuBois’ life-long advocacy concerning the objectives and importance of education and leadership for Black people.
This essay maintains that W.E.B. DuBois’ philosophy of leadership (“The Talented Tenth”) along with his philosophy of education represented liberatory if imperfect, frameworks from 1898 until his death that challenged the subjugation of Black people and allowed for the development of a much larger and powerful Black leadership and working class in the 20th century.
Members of this group -afforded the liberal arts education and instilled with the race consciousness that DuBois championed – would go on to legally dismantle segregation, mount Black Power and Black Arts Movements, and demand Black Studies across the nation.
As might be expected, DuBois’ own formal educational experiences at premiere educational institutions profoundly influenced his intellectual philosophy of education and leadership; therefore we begin by briefly exploring his experiences as a young scholar at Fisk, Harvard and the University of Berlin and the extent to which these experiences shaped his educational philosophy.
Growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts DuBois’ New England neighborhood allowed him to grow up relatively sheltered from the overt racial brutality, discrimination and dire poverty he likely would have encountered in the South. According to DuBois, most people in his town worked, and there was little observable class hierarchy or poverty.
“Willie” as he was then known, attended school and church with white children and while he suffered occasional verbal assaults by Irish children, DuBois notes that “I felt no sense of difference or separation from the main mass of townspeople.”
Encouraged by the support of his High School principal Frank Hosmer, and the collaboration of three local churches, Willie received a $25 per year scholarship to cover his tuition at Fisk University in Tennessee. Though the young DuBois wanted to attend Harvard University, he welcomed undergraduate study at Fisk. He eventually became the Editor of the Fisk Herald where he sharpened his journalistic skills. Referring to this stage of his life as the “Age of miracles,” Willie found himself for the first time surrounded by large numbers of enterprising Black people.
Also, it was at Fisk that DuBois began to develop his race consciousness, gaining first-hand exposure to the raw brutality, racially tinged customs and extreme poverty associated with being Black in the South.
DuBois explains as much in his last autobiographical effort when he writes,
So I came to a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds, as well as by deep ignorance and dire poverty. But facing this was not a lost group, but at Fisk a microcosm of a world and a civilization in potentiality. Into this world I leapt with enthusiasm. A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: henceforward I was a Negro.”
Of particular importance in this respect were DuBois’ experiences teaching and living with poor Blacks in Wilson County, Tennessee. DuBois’ biographer David Lewis suggests that Willie needed to become familiar with the economic realities confronting poor Blacks and that this understanding need come from a lived rather than academic experience. Thus by the time DuBois graduated from Fisk in 1888 he took with him a healthy dose of racial consciousness, and a belief of his own important role in Black empowerment, to Harvard University.
At Harvard, DuBois was influenced intellectually in ways that impacted his politics beyond graduation. Of the Harvard faculty, perhaps DuBois’ most powerful influences were philosophers William James and George Palmer and Albert Hart. Arnold Rampersad, writing of James’ effect on DuBois notes, “James stressed the moral heroism of the common man at a time when the popular attitude among people of wealth and education was a naturalistic contempt for such people as the irredeemable, defeated species of society.”
In addition to recognizing poor peoples’ agency and worth, James also spoke of the educated and wealthy classes’ responsibility to provide leadership for their less cultured citizens. When we add James’ influence to Palmer’s emphasis on ethics, especially on the need for self-sacrifice to obtain community uplift, we recognize two important foundational concepts undergirding DuBois’ forthcoming idea of the Talented Tenth. DuBois himself mentioned that James and Hart (with his emphasis on empirical research) pushed him “back from the lovely but sterile land of philosophic speculation, to the social sciences as the field for gathering and interpreting that body of fact which would apply to my program for the Negro.”
Dubois’ enrollment at the University of Berlin from 1892-1894 saw his scholarly interests grow to incorporate economics, political theory and the new field of sociology in addition to his already primed interests in philosophy and history.
Free of the racial constrictions forced upon him in America, and privileged to study with some of Europe’s greatest minds, DuBois used the German experience to sharpen and synthesize his intellectual tools and analysis. Reflecting upon the German educational influence upon him, Dubois noted,
Under these teachers and in this social setting, I began to see the race problem in America, the problem of the peoples of Africa and Asia, and the political development of Europe as one. I began to unite my economics and politics; but I still assumed that in these groups of activities and forces, the political realm was dominant.
Having earned his doctorate degree from Harvard, published his dissertation The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade, in addition to his sociological classic The Philadelphia Negro all in the same year (1896), DuBois began work first as a sociology instructor at the University of Pennsylvania then as professor of history and economics at Atlanta University the following year.
Written at the turn of the 20th Century, Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk provides a history of the black experience from the Reconstruction to the turn of the century, and in doing so, encompasses such topics as black religion, music, labor, politics and education.
It is typically suggested that his main interest in Souls is to humanize black people in the eyes of his white contemporaries. The title itself suggests this aim, (that Blacks do in fact, have souls) and Dubois alludes to this in the forethought of his book.
In the first chapter entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Dubois introduces his concept of the “veil,” to describe how white society creates barriers to black advancement. This veil, suggests Dubois,
“only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” While that veil clouds blacks’ self-perception, Dubois suggests that the veil of race also prevents whites from viewing black people as they truly are. What results then is a distorted view that blacks are ignorant, child-like, and inhuman. Setting this foundation in the beginning, Dubois then sets out to help white America see black people as they truly are, to expose them as his title suggests, to the souls of black folk.
He does this convincingly, arguing that the black condition following the Civil War might appear trivial or “weak,” but is in fact, the burden blacks bear, fighting both to be true to their own culture and to reconcile themselves with American values and expectations. As if pleading with white America not to judge the descendants of slaves too harshly, he reminds them of the intense poverty they suffered and how generations of educational neglect left them illiterate and unsophisticated. 
In the second chapter, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” Dubois explores the period after the Civil War until 1872, highlighting both the achievements and defects of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
He recalls how former slaves fought in the Union army, created mutual aid societies, and struggled to educate themselves with and without Bureau support. His account squarely documents the tenacity of black people, and the seriousness with which they took their own lives and freedom. DuBois’ testimony to black humanity and agency despite societal handicaps continues throughout the book.
In his chapter Of the Training of Black Men, for example, he discusses the development of industrial and common education for blacks in the south, noting the remarkable progress made amongst black college graduates and professionals in just five decades.
In the last chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” DuBois poetically describes the power and history of the Spirituals, which he characterizes as “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Thus, he provides a counter argument for whites at the time that portrayed blacks as being content with their captivity and abuse. Again, DuBois uses his broad knowledge of history to humanize black people by illustrating their contributions to American music, their industry (he recalled how the Fisk Jubilee Singers used their concerts to raise money to support Fisk University), and their humanity.
Finally, DuBois summarizes his appeal to white America on behalf of black humanity when he cites black contributions to America: “Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro People?”
Yet, Souls represented more than a plea to white America for understanding, validation or recognition of Black humanity. W.E.B. DuBois, ever the scholar-activist-propagandist, used Souls to raise serious criticism of Booker T. Washington, specifically the “Tuskegee Wizard’s” endorsement of industrial education for southern Blacks and the political implications of this model. Given Washington’s popularity following his speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, and the expansive financial and political networks at Washington’s disposal, DuBois’ challenge was both bold and risky. Interestingly, DuBois initial reaction to Washington’s speech was complimentary as noted in the congratulatory letter he dispatched to Washington: “Let me heartily congratulate you upon your phenomenal success at Atlanta it was a word fitly spoken.”
What then were DuBois’ concerns with Booker T. Washington? Reflecting on this question, DuBois recalls Washington’s almost exclusive access to white philanthropy and his role as sole Black advisor to white politicians. In addition, DuBois and other Black intellectuals at the time resented what appeared to be the ‘Tuskegee Machine’s’ tendency to exert coercive control over the Black and (to a smaller degree) white press. According to DuBois, Washington exerted such power and influence that his approval or disapproval affected the hiring, receipt of philanthropy and recommendation of Black people for positions.
In a March 1905 personal letter to Oswald Garrison Villard (owner at the time of the New York Evening Post) DuBois responds to Villard’s challenge that DuBois provide proof of his charges against Washington. DuBois alleges among other things that Washington and his agents purchase newspapers antagonistic to him, use political patronage to reward and or punish people, offer bribes to control the direction of newspaper editorials favorable to Washington, etc.
Of course, Dubois’ concern with Washington transcended questions of the latter’s political integrity. In a larger sense, DuBois also took issue with the Hampton-Tuskegee model of education widely promoted by Washington. As we will see, this industrial education model implied a problematic Black labor, social and political presence that directly conflicted with DuBois vision. In “The Conservation of Races” (1897), DuBois advocated that Blacks embrace the race concept, develop themselves individually and collectively, and most of all, develop and promote their cultural uniqueness rather than amalgamate into white culture. In a moving passage that anticipates the nationalist call of Marcus Garvey and later advocates of Black Power, DuBois proclaims:
It is our duty to conserve our physical powers, our intellectual endowments, our spiritual ideals; as a race we must strive by race organization, by race solidarity, by race unity to the realization of that broader humanity which freely recognizes differences in men, but sternly, deprecates inequality in their opportunities of development. For the accomplishment of these ends we need race organizations: Negro colleges, Negro newspapers, Negro business organizations, a Negro school of literature and art, and an intellectual clearing house, for all these products of the Negro mind, which we may call a Negro Academy. Not only is all this necessary for positive advance, it is absolutely imperative for negative defense. Let us not deceive ourselves at our situation in this country. Weighted with a heritage of moral iniquity from our past history, hard pressed in the economic world by foreign immigrants and native prejudice, hated here, despised there and pitied everywhere ; our one haven of refuge is ourselves..
Certainly a people only decades removed from enslavement would need adequate training to take up leadership positions in the Black community. Washington’s plan of Black education, which we will now address, conflicts with DuBois’ plan of developing Blacks into self-determined, culturally vibrant and liberated people. More specifically, DuBois viewed Washington’s educational plan as the antithesis to what the Black masses needed.
So concerned was DuBois with what he viewed as Washington’s missteps, he devoted the entire third chapter of Souls (“Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”) to addressing them. He begins by offering points of agreement with Washington, “it is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that, steering as he must between so many diverse interests and opinions, he so largely retains the respect of all.”
Next, DuBois explains how Washington’s program if followed, would disarm and politically cripple Black people. According to DuBois, Washington was essentially asking Black people to abandon their quest for political power, civil rights, and higher education while working to accumulate wealth, pursuing industrial education and making peace with southern whites. The results of these policies were in DuBois’ opinion, disastrous: Black disfranchisement, the legacy of Jim Crow, and the withdrawal of finances to aid Black Colleges.
Thus in Dubois’ view, Washington’s approach seemed to benefit conservative white southerners and northern philanthropists far more than Blacks themselves. In fact, Washington’s program appeared to uphold the racist labor, political and racial hierarchy in America.
James D. Anderson’s work detailing the education of Blacks in the South seems to corroborate this. According to Anderson, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founder and principal of Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute and mentor of Booker T. Washington, held condescending views of Blacks: “He wrote almost exclusively of the immorality and irresponsibility of black voters; he excoriated black politicians and labeled the freedman’s enfranchisement as dangerous to the South and the nation.” In Armstrong’s view, Black people were morally backwards and savage people who needed the superior leadership and guidance of whites to sustain themselves for several generations into the future.
If by today’s standards the leading white proponent of industrial education for Blacks was a racist intent on keeping Black people subjugated under white leadership indefinitely, it follows that his educational program for Blacks would maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.
In contrast, DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” theory of leadership and his vision of liberal arts education was liberatory:
The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.
Borrowing the term from Henry L. Morehouse (1896) who believed that group advancement came from a top-down approach, and also his old Harvard professors William James and Albert Hart, DuBois’ vision called for Black leadership from a small group of professionals and intellectuals armed with a strong liberal arts education and race consciousness. It was expected that this group would teach civilized manners to the masses, lead the fight for civil and political rights, and form the cadre of teachers responsible for training subsequent generations of Black leadership.
Proving the validity of his vision, DuBois recalled that the majority of Black abolitionists were if not self-taught, educated in liberal arts institutions. We should note that while his debate with Booker T. Washington energized DuBois notion of Black leadership and education, his philosophy concerning these matters did not begin here.
In his essay “Careers Open to College-Bred Negroes,” which was originally the commencement speech he delivered at his alma mater Fisk University in 1898, DuBois reminded the young graduates of their responsibility as college-educated Blacks to use their training to uplift the masses of their people and to apply their knowledge to creating social change rather than for personal gratification.
This last idea, that the talented tenth should embody important character traits including self-denial, community consciousness, and the pursuit of truth and justice, were equally important ideas to DuBois. Without these traits, the talented tenth would simply adopt the “rugged individualism” and profit-driven motivations of their white peers. In the fifth chapter of Souls, “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” Dubois recalls the Greek myth of Atalanta, a swift goddess tricked into marriage through her over-attentiveness to gold. In some of his most poetic and beautiful writing DuBois cautions his talented tenth against materialism:
Already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretense and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged,–wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Indeed DuBois would practice the words he preached. He joined a cadre of like-minded intellectuals to form the Niagara Movement which later led to the formation of the NAACP (which later launched several successful legal battles to dismantle racial segregation); he became active within and even a leader of the Pan-African Conference Movement, traveling to and interacting with Africa as even Marcus Garvey failed to do.
As founder and editor of the Crisis, DuBois developed a propaganda vehicle through which to inform, scold, warn and mobilize generations of Blacks in America. He made alliances and several enemies along the way, including the NAACP which he helped to found, when he began calling for Blacks to “self-segregate” and create their own colleges in 1935; When he joined the Communist Party and later repatriated to Ghana at Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation, he certainly courted the wrath of Cold War America.
And yet, without his insistence on a strong liberal arts education for Blacks that would prepare them for leadership, his constant call for race solidarity and community consciousness, and his bold critique of what he saw as a debilitating industrial education model, he was able to set the stage for the modern civil rights movement in addition to Black Studies. While his “Talented Tenth” theory has been challenged many times over (even by DuBois himself) his vindication lies in the existence of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Nkrumah, Ella Baker and countless other educated “people of color” who led decolonization/liberation movements. We might ask like Professor Ernest Allen, at the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, “What would the Black experience in America have been without the presence of W.E.B. DuBois” and find ourselves at a distinct loss for words. While we cannot answer with absolute certainty, we can speculate a far smaller educated class, and perhaps a much longer transition from agricultural servitude to empowerment in industrial America.
Yet, even DuBois was forced to reconsider his Talented Tenth theory in later years. Disappointed with the corrupted educated Blacks leadership class he fought so hard to develop, he began to look more to the Black working classes:
I now realize that the ability within a people does not automatically work for its highest salvation. On the contrary, in an era like this, and in the United States, many of the educated and gifted young black folk will be as selfish and immoral as the whites who surround them and to whom Negroes have been taught to look as ideals . Naturally, out of the mass of the workingclasses, who know life and its bitter struggle, will continually rise the real, unselfish and clear-sighted leadership. This will not be automatic or continuous, but the hope of the future of the Negro race in America and the world lies far more among its workers than among its college graduates, until the time that our higher training is rescued from its sycophantic and cowardly leadership of today, almost wholly dependent as it is on Big Business either in politics or philanthropy.
Though writing in despair DuBois still manages to be visionary. He anticipated the likes of Malcolm X, a non-college graduate who rose through a criminal past and bitter working class struggle to provide unselfish and clear-sighted leadership. Ironically, Malcolm X read The Souls of Black Folk in prison and later rose to challenge the motivations and priorities of Black college-educated civil rights leadership. Then bringing history full circle, Malcolm X inspired legions of Black college students to serve as a “talented tenth” of sorts, by challenging them to acquire a functional education that prepared them to address the oppressive conditions in their communities.
Anderson, James. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
DuBois, W.E.B., The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of its First Century. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. (New York: International Publishers, 1968).
DuBois, W.E.B., “Careers Open to College-Bred Negroes” in W.E.B. DuBois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses 1890-1919, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
DuBois, W.E.B., The Conservation of Races (American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, No.2, 1897).
DuBois, W.E.B., The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. Vol. 1: 1877-1934. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973.
DuBois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920).
DuBois, W. E. B., In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (New York : Masses and Mainstream, 1952).
DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk: Sketches and Essays. Second Edition. Chicago, A. C. McClurg & Co.1903.
DuBois, W.E.B., “The Talented Tenth.” In The Negro Problem; a Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of to-Day, New York: J. Pott & Co., 1903.
DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk. In Three Negro Classics, New York: Avon Books, 1965.
King, Martin Luther, Centennial Address at Carnegie Hall International Cultural Evening Honoring Dr. DuBois, February 23, 1968, http://pmeaye.tripod.com/kingondubois.pdf.
Lewis, David Levering, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: H. Holt, 1993.
Morehouse, Henry L., “The Talented Tenth,” Independent 48 (April 23,1896):1.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois. 1976 : New York: Schocken, 1990.
 James Anderson. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 4.
 Ibid., 7.
 W.E.B. DuBois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of its First Century. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. (New York: International Publishers, 1968), 78-79.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 105.
 W.E.B. DuBois, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), 14.
 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: H. Holt, 1993.
 DuBois, The Autobiography, 108.
 Lewis, 67.
 Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois. 1976 : rpt. New York: Schocken, 1990, 29.
 DuBois, The Autobiography, 148.
 Ibid., 162.
, W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk. In Three Negro Classics, 209. New York: Avon Books, 1965
 Souls, 215.
 Souls, 218
 Ibid., 279.
 Ibid,. 380.
 Ibid., 387.
 DuBois, W.E.B. DuBois, The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. Vol. 1:
1877-1934. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973, 39.
 DuBois, Autobiography, 237-239.
 Ibid., 239-241.
 W.E.B. DuBois, The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois, 98-100.
 W.E.B. DuBois, The Conservation of Races (American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, No.
2, 1897.) 10.
 Ibid., 12.
 W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk: Sketches and Essays. Second Edition. Chicago
A. C. McClurg & Co.1903,
 Souls, 51.
 James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, 39.
 W.E.B. DuBois, “The Talented Tenth.” In The Negro Problem; a Series of Articles by
Representative American Negroes of to-Day, New York: J. Pott & Co., 1903, 33.
Henry L. Morehouse, “The Talented Tenth,” Independent 48 (April 23,1896):1.
 W.E.B. DuBois, “The Talented Tenth.” 42.
 W.E.B. DuBois, “Careers Open to College-Bred Negroes” in W.E.B. DuBois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses 1890-1919, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970, 89.
 DuBois, Souls, 79.
 W. E. B. Du Bois, In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (New York : Masses and Mainstream, 1952), p. 173 .