September 1902 The Civil War

Of the Training of Black Men

Taking issue with Booker T. Washington, the author argues that blacks should attend college.
Currior & Ives Lithography Company/National Portrait Gallery

Several decades after the war, slavery’s demise had not brought about an integrated society. But W. E. B. Du Bois, a towering intellect from western Massachusetts, was determined to press for progress. He advocated for the right of black Americans to fully develop their minds and talents so that the races might at last meet on equal terms.

Du Bois took issue with the views of Booker T. Washington, whose rise to prominence, Du Bois contended, was attributable to the fact that he told whites what they wanted to hear. As Du Bois would write in his book The Souls of Black Folk, “[Washington] insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.” He urged black men, “if they are really men,” to oppose their putative spokesman and to “strive for the rights which the world accords to men … ‘That all men are created equal.’”

In 1902, he responded directly to Washington’s celebration of industrial training, arguing that blacks—no less than whites—should avail themselves of a higher education.

—Sage Stossel

In rough approximation we may point out four varying decades of work in Southern education since the Civil War. From the close of the war until 1876 was the period of uncertain groping and temporary relief. There were army schools, mission schools, and schools of the Freedman’s Bureau in chaotic disarrangement, seeking system and coöperation. Then followed ten years of constructive definite effort toward the building of complete school systems in the South … Meantime, starting in this decade yet especially developing from 1885 to 1895, began the industrial revolution of the South … In the midst, then, of the larger problem of Negro education sprang up the more practical question of work, the inevitable economic quandary that faces a people in the transition from slavery to freedom, and especially those who make that change amid hate and prejudice, lawlessness and ruthless competition.

The industrial school springing to notice in this decade, but coming to full recognition in the decade beginning with 1895, was the proffered answer to this combined educational and economic crisis, and an answer of singular wisdom and timeliness. From the very first in nearly all the schools some attention had been given to training in handiwork, but now was this training first raised to a dignity that brought it in direct touch with the South’s magnificent industrial development, and given an emphasis which reminded black folk that before the Temple of Knowledge swing the Gates of Toil.

Yet … we have a right to inquire, as this enthusiasm for material advancement mounts to its height, if after all the industrial school is the final and sufficient answer in the training of the Negro race; and to ask gently, but in all sincerity, the ever recurring query of the ages, Is not life more than meat, and the body more than raiment? … We daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black …

Without doubt many are asking, Are there a sufficient number of Negroes ready for college training to warrant the undertaking? Are not too many students prematurely forced into this work? Does it not have the effect of dissatisfying the young Negro with his environment? And do these graduates succeed in real life? …

To-day … four hundred Negroes, many of whom have been reported as brilliant students, have received the bachelor’s degree from Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, and seventy other leading colleges … How far did their training fit them for life? … In 1900, the Conference at Atlanta University undertook to study these graduates, and published the results … Fifty-three per cent of these graduates were teachers,—presidents of institutions, heads of normal schools, principals of city school systems, and the like. Seventeen per cent were clergymen; another seventeen per cent were in the professions, chiefly as physicians. Over six per cent were merchants, farmers, and artisans, and four per cent were in the government civil service. Granting even that a considerable proportion of the third unheard from are unsuccessful, this is a record of usefulness …

There were, in the years from 1875 to 1880, twenty-two Negro graduates from Northern colleges; from 1885 to 1890 there were forty-three, and from 1895 to 1900, nearly 100 graduates. Here, then, is the plain thirst for training; by refusing to give this Talented Tenth the key to knowledge can any sane man imagine that they will lightly lay aside their yearning and contentedly become hewers of wood and drawers of water? …

The function of the Negro college then is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and coöperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men … Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts.


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