Activities: Context Activities
Elevating an Elite: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth
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 J. E. Purdy, W. E. B. Du Bois (1904), courtesy of the Library of Congress
At the turn of the twentieth century, black people in the American South had yet to enjoy many of the rights and opportunities promised them by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fifteenth Amendment, and the federal Civil Rights Act. Instead, many African Americans were denied the right to vote by expensive poll taxes, property requirements, or bogus "literacy tests." At the same time, "Jim Crow" laws enforced segregation in virtually all public spaces in the South, from railroad cars to schools. Violence against African Americans--including lynching--was on the rise.
Faced with this overwhelming, systematized oppression, African American leaders like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois concluded that education was their best strategy for achieving social advancement and civil rights. While they agreed on the need for education, however, they held extremely different ideas about what kind of curriculum would best suit their goal of asserting African American equality. Washington held that blacks should be trained only in practical, vocational skills such as farming, carpentry, mechanical trades, sewing, and cooking. The Tuskegee Institute, where Washington served as the director, dedicated itself to providing black students with these kinds of practical skills. Du Bois, on the other hand, insisted that broader educational opportunities should be available to at least some African Americans. His ideas centered on his theory of a Talented Tenth, an elite group of gifted and polished individuals who could benefit from a rigorous classical education and then lead their entire race forward.
In his 1903 essay "The Talented Tenth," Du Bois claimed that "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." According to Du Bois, a small, uniquely endowed elite could alone make artistic and scholarly contributions to world development on behalf of the entire race. He perceived the relationship between this talented elite and the rest of the group as a symbiotic one: the larger group would support the talented elite, who would in turn raise the level of the entire group. The Talented Tenth would combat the degrading tendencies of what Du Bois called "The Submerged Tenth," a group he characterized as "criminals, prostitutes, and loafers." In Du Bois's scheme, the Talented Tenth would work not simply within the group but would also direct their efforts against the forces of racism.
While Du Bois intended his plan to benefit all African Americans, the theory of the Talented Tenth has obvious problematic implications. The elevation of an elite segment of African American society with special access to opportunities and resources would create sharp distinctions and classes within the community as a whole, and the belief that only a small group has the potential to make important contributions is profoundly anti-democratic. But despite the exclusivity of the notion of the Talented Tenth, Du Bois's ideas advocated broad educational opportunities for at least some African Americans and inspired many with hope.
- Comprehension: According to Du Bois, what kinds of responsibilities do the Talented Tenth have to the rest of the group? In Du Bois's formulation, how would the Talented Tenth benefit the larger African American community?
- Context: Early in his career, Du Bois was offered a position teaching at Tuskegee Institute, the vocational school that Booker T. Washington directed. Why do you think Du Bois decided not to accept the position? How are his ideas about black education at odds with Washington's mission for Tuskegee?
- Exploration: In Charles W. Chesnutt's story "The Wife of His Youth," the main character is a member of an elite African American club that seems to consider itself akin to a "Talented Tenth." How does the story critique the elitism of this organization?
- Exploration: What kinds of issues inform contemporary debates about educational opportunities for minority groups? Why is affirmative action such a controversial policy in contemporary America?
 Richmond Barth, Bust of Booker T. Washington (c. 1920),
courtesy of NARA [NWDNS-H-HN-BAR-38].
Washington was the most prominent African American at the turn of the twentieth century; he worked for most of his life to expand and support Tuskegee College in Alabama; his best-known literary work is Up from Slavery.
 Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].
African American man in a segregated waiting room at a bus station. Jim Crow laws severely divided the experiences of whites and African Americans in the South.
 Arthur Rothstein, Sharecropper's Children (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-025464-D].
Photograph of three African American children on a porch. Landowners rarely kept sharecroppers' homes in good condition. Du Bois hoped that an educated "Talented Tenth" of African Americans would help lift such children out of poverty.
 J. E. Purdy, W. E. B. Du Bois (1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-28485].
Taken a year after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, this portrait shows Du Bois as a refined and serious intellectual. In his lifetime Du Bois led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and championed the cause of African American advancement through education.
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