Peter Gillen Taunton High School



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Peter Gillen

Taunton High School

NEH Summer Seminar: Africans in America

Lesson Plan: Document Based Essay comparing Du Bois and Washington

Grade Level: high school

The purpose of this activity is to allow students to engage in this fascinating debate between two giants in American history. Much of their debate – revolving as it does around education – remains relevant for African Americans, and indeed for all Americans, today.


Educators may want to consult the fine PBS Frontline site, which gives a short summary of the debate between Washington and Du Bois, and which also links to their writings, essays by experts, and other resources.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/etc/road.html
Introduction: The primary source readings below encompass some of the most eloquent writings of two of the most revered and respected leaders in the post-Civil war era. W.E.B. Du Bois, ever the idealist, and the first Black man to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University, proposed that African-Americans must elevate themselves and their race through rigorous scholarship in the humanities. Booker T. Washington, who famously founded and successfully ran an industrial school called the Tuskegee Institute, promoted more practical learning. He believed that freed Blacks must first contribute to the economy, before they should worry too much about social equality. Washington, the first Black man to be invited to have dinner with the president at the White House, was viewed as more conservative, and his position “accomodationist.” His acceptance, for a time at least, of social and political inequality of black men in the south recalls the discussions of social and political equality discussed in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of DuBois, David Levering Lewis traced the personal and professional disagreements between DuBois and Washington that preceded the ideological break. Much of the disagreement between the two men took place in the early 1900s, after the disappointments of the Reconstruction Era.

Document 1:  W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth," from The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day (New York, 1903).


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. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life. . . .

  1. Do you agree that there is such a thing as a talented tenth?

  2. Du Bois makes a distinction between men and “money-makers?” What might that difference be?

Document 2 the Training of Black Men, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Atlantic Monthly , September 1902

Again, we may decry the color prejudice of the South, yet it remains a heavy fact. Such curious kinks of the human mind exist and must be reckoned with soberly. They cannot be laughed away, nor always successfully stormed at, nor easily abolished by act of legislature. And yet they cannot be encouraged by being let alone. They must be recognized as facts, but unpleasant facts; things that stand in the way of civilization and religion and common decency. They can be met in but one way: by the breadth and broadening of human reason, by catholicity of taste and culture. And so, too, the native ambition and aspiration of men, even though they be black, backward, and ungraceful, must not lightly be dealt with. To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps. The guiding of thought and the deft coordination of deed is at once the path of honor and humanity.



  1. How does Du Bois believe that men should react to color prejudice?

  2. How can education of black men and women change this prejudice?

Document 3 Of the Training of Black Men, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Atlantic Monthly , September 1902

To-day we have climbed to heights where we would open at least the outer courts of knowledge to all, display its treasures to many, and select the few to whom its mystery of Truth is revealed, not wholly by truth or the accidents of the stock market, but at least in part according to deftness and aim, talent and character. This programme, however, we are sorely puzzled in carrying out through that part of the land where the blight of slavery fell hardest, and where we are dealing with two backward peoples. To make here in human education that ever necessary combination of the permanent and the contingent -- of the ideal and the practical in workable equilibrium -- has been there, as it ever must in every age and place, a matter of infinite experiment and frequent mistakes.
1. What is Du Bois’ opinion of people who grew up in the land where “the blight of slavery fell hardest?”

2. Why do you think that Du Bois claims that human education is a matter of “infinite experiment and frequent mistakes?”

Document 4 Of the Training of Black Men, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Atlantic Monthly , September 1902

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 cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human souls that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development; that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old and new. . .

1. How do you think a Negro college could bring about social regeneration?

Document 5 Of the Training of Black Men, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Atlantic Monthly , September 1902

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of Evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what souls I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgrah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

1. What is Du Bois saying here, in this highly evocative and figurative language?


Document 6: Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.



  1. Why would Washington give up on the idea of social equality?

  2. What is his remedy from social ostracism?

  3. Do you think that he believes African-Americans are socially inferior?

Source: Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 583–587

Document 7 Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech

Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.

Source: Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 583–587.



  1. What is Washington saying about the early years of Reconstruction?

Document 8 Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech

Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

Source: Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 583–587.


  1. Do you agree that there is as much dignity in tilling the soil as writing a poem?

  2. Do you agree that freed slaves did have to start at the bottom of life?

  3. Why do you think that Washington said “Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities?”

Document 9 Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech
As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Source: Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 583–587.



  1. Can this sort of social inequality really lead to mutual progress?

Document 10 Booker T. Washington, in Up From Slavery
As a rule, I believe in universal, free suffrage, but I believe that in the South we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states, for a while at least, either by an educational test, a property test, or by both combined; but whatever tests are required, they should be made to apply with equal and exact justice to both races.
1. What is your opinion of the wisdom of this position, as set forth by Washington?

Essay
Using at least four of the documents, explain the theoretical difference between Dubois and Washington concerning voting rights, social change, education, and the role of the Black man in the South. How are the two leaders’ different? How do these positions relate to social and political change taking place today? Which man makes the better case?


Your essay should be 6-8 paragraphs, and include quotes and paraphrasing from the two men. You may use your background knowledge of the Jim Crowe South, your understanding of Reconstruction and its failures, and your understanding of the Civil Rights movement in later years to provide historical context.


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