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A Biography of America

A Vital Progressivism

Professor Martin offers a fresh perspective on Progressivism, arguing that its spirit can be best seen in the daily struggles of ordinary people. In a discussion with Professors Scharff and Miller, the struggles of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans are placed in the context of the traditional white Progressive movement.

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Program 19: A Vital Progressivism

Donald L. Miller with Waldo E. Martin, Jr., and Virginia Scharff.


Miller: The Progressive Era: what was it? Nobody knew they were living in a thing called the Progressive Age, you know. I mean, it’s a constructed story.

Martin: I’m really interested in trying to put a different face on the period, trying to get a sense of America that is defining itself in a different way. African Americans, Mexican Americans, to some extent Native Americans — understand the strategies that they evolved which enabled them to persist and to transcend some really awful kinds of experiences.

Miller: Today on A Biography of America, “A Vital Progressivism.”

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A Different Perspective On Progressivism

Martin: Traditionally, scholars speak of Progressivism as the various middle class reform efforts to alleviate problems associated with the wrenching changes the United States experienced at the turn of the century. Urbanization, immigration, industrialization led to much dislocation and suffering. Child labor laws, women’s suffrage, banking reform, settlement houses for urban women in need, and improved food safety are areas of traditional Progressive concern.

I want to offer a different perspective on Progressivism. At the turn of the century, African American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois forecasted that: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Building upon that insight, I want to argue that the Progressive spirit can be clearly seen in the group-based struggles of peoples of color to realize their hopes and dreams, notwithstanding often overwhelming obstacles. A fundamental aspect of Progressivism, therefore, was the continuing freedom struggles of peoples of color.

After Reconstruction, the place of blacks in America was a separate and severely restricted world. Lynching emerged as a weapon in the arsenal aimed at keeping blacks in their place. Legal and extra-legal violence went hand-in-hand with systems of economic repression. A kind of neo-slavery developed, including sharecropping, which kept landless blacks economically shackled.

At the turn of the century, southern whites devised elaborate systems of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. American apartheid extended from schools, churches, and courthouses, to water fountains, restaurants, hotels, department stores, and parks. Blacks increasingly turned inward as a community and mobilized for the long haul.

Fiery Ida B. Wells, nonetheless, led an impressive international and domestic campaign against lynching. Wells labored tirelessly on behalf of federal action against lynching. It is important to bear in mind that segregation affected all peoples of color in varying degrees, including Indians on reservations. The logic was clear: to make the false notion of white superiority appear natural and right.

Indian Schools

Indians, like blacks, experienced the whitening of America. Rather than vanishing, as many at the time and since claimed they would, Indians survived. The old ways, rather than vanishing, persisted in the face of genocide and Americanization. Reservations did not lead to the de-tribalization of Indians. Instead, in spite of the growing American theft of Indian lands, reservations preserved and often extended tribal identities.

In many ways, the most revealing feature of the official turn-of-the-century Americanization project was the Indian boarding school. This educational experiment sought to assimilate Indians out of their Indianness, whitening them into good Americans. This policy removed Indian children from their families and reservations, their homes, and isolated them in off-reservation schools like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

These schools wreaked havoc on the children, their families, their tribes, and reservation life. All aspects of Indian culture were attacked. The outward appearance of these Indians underwent a dramatic transformation. Observe the hair, the clothes, the shoes, and most telling perhaps, the attitude, the demeanor. The tragedy of the Indian boarding school experience can be seen in the philosophy guiding the experiment: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

By 1900 there were over 21, 000 Indian children in these schools. The vocational and manual training for boys, as well as the Victorian-inspired domestic training for girls, were ill-suited for a return to reservation life. Moreover, extreme anti-Indian racism severely limited off-reservation opportunities. Homesickness, disease, and alienation were rampant.

These factors combined in varying degrees to make the boarding school experience traumatic for many Indian children. Resistance was common. Many who survived were often torn between the two worlds.

An impressive number finessed the tension between these worlds. Some used their new-found knowledge and skill to champion Indian rights. Ironically, many of the pioneering “Red Progressives” who led the early Indian-directed efforts to alleviate their peoples’ oppression were boarding school veterans.

Susan and Suzette LaFlesche, sisters from the Omaha tribe, lectured widely and even lobbied Congress on behalf of Indian rights. Susan was the first Western-trained woman Indian doctor. Suzette argued for Indians becoming full citizens under the United States Constitution. Francis, their brother, was a pioneering anthropologist.

Dakota Sioux Charles Alexander Eastman was a “Red Progressive” and a founding member of the Society of American Indians, a pioneering Native Rights organization. This was the first Indian Rights organization created and run by Indians for Indians. Like so many of his “Red Progressive” colleagues, Eastman endeavored to represent the best of both worlds.

He maintained: “I am an Indian, and while I have learned much from civilization, for which I am grateful, I have never lost my Indian sense of right and justice…Nevertheless, as long as I live, I am an American.” Eastman’s sense of twoness showed a tension between Indianness and Americaness. This tension revealed an “ambivalent Americanism” common among outsiders to the American mainstream.

Asian Immigrants

“Asian American” is a broad category encompassing a wide variety of different peoples, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Filipinos. Sojourners sought to make enough money to sustain a homeland connection, eventually planning to return home. Settlers, however, saw their destiny as making it in America.

While Chinese exclusion had drastically curtailed Chinese immigration by the turn of the century, Japanese immigration expanded. In response, whites created restrictions aimed primarily at the Japanese. These included alien land laws prohibiting “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning or leasing land. Nonetheless, many Japanese found a measure of success in the agricultural sector, particularly in California.

Whites feared and fought success among peoples of color precisely because of the threat, imagined and real, such success represented to white competitors. Indeed, that success blatantly contradicted the very idea of white supremacy. Nonetheless, Asian Americans struggled against the odds to forge viable communities. That these communities were mostly male complicated the task of finding marriage partners and sustaining families.

By the early 1900s, laws prevented the immigration to the United States of the wives of Chinese male immigrants. One male Chinese migrant wrote to his wife back in China: “Yesterday I received another of your letters. I could not keep tears from running down my cheeks when thinking about the miserable and needy circumstances of our home, and thinking back to the time of our separation… Who could know that the Fate is always opposite to man’s design? Because I can get no gold, I am detained in this secluded corner of a strange land.”

Early on April 18, 1906, a powerful earthquake devastated San Francisco. Fires caused by the earthquake destroyed municipal records. As a result, without records to prove otherwise, many Chinese men born in China now claimed to have been born in this country. As such, they were entitled to bring their wives to the United States. In short order, the numbers of Chinese women in San Francisco increased dramatically.

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Mexican Immigrants

Like Asian immigrants, Mexican immigrants sought economic opportunity and improved lives within the context of an expanding, increasingly international, capitalist labor market. Like Asians, Mexicans were also typically sojourners and settlers. In addition, Mexican immigrants often participated in a circular, or back-and-forth, migratory pattern across the border between Mexico and the United States. Long-term Mexican settlement and long-term Mexican heritage in the Southwest and the West made the border a less formidable barrier.

In the late 1920s, looking back on his recent life, Zeferino Ramirez was justifiably proud. He had come north seeking work during the Mexican Revolution. In Los Angeles, he encountered job discrimination, but he persevered. He even brought his wife and children to Belvedere, an unincorporated Mexican community in East Los Angeles.

After working very hard, including several years as a highway laborer and time as a mortician’s assistant, he was able to open his own business; a mortuary. He was one of the first Mexican businessmen in his community.

Most Mexicans in the United States and their descendants were not so lucky. They often found themselves caught up in physically taxing and low-paying work in mining, in railroad construction, and low-paying migratory and seasonal work in agriculture. Migrant families often found it more of a challenge to maintain themselves than settled families.

Mexican identities already combined Native, Spanish, and African peoples. Growing Americanization further enriched these mixed identities. Mexican American communities reflected creative blendings of Mexican and American cultures. Adaptive families, new social networks, and Spanish-language newspapers illustrated these mixings of Mexican and American worlds.

Mexican Americans organized formally to improve their status in the United States. In spite of increasing opposition, Mexican aliens, unlike Asian aliens, could be naturalized. Furthermore, there was some strength in numbers. In 1920, over a quarter of San Antonio’s population of 161,000 were Mexicans.

Los Angeles’s Mexican population was even larger. Farm workers, miners, and railroad workers organized to alleviate a range of injustices. These included a dual wage system that paid Mexicans less than Euro-Americans for the same job. On the formal civil rights front, the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, emerged in the 1920s.

African Americans and The Democratic Promise

Since Emancipation, Southern blacks had moved about in the South in search of improved life chances. The depression of the 1890s intensified that search, increasing migration within and outside the South. By the turn of the century, most still remained poor, southern-based, landless sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

The most prominent African American leader in this period was Booker T. Washington. He counseled accommodation and a de-emphasis on politics and agitation. As the founder of Tuskegee Institute, he emphasized vocational and domestic training as key to uplifting the black masses.

Another critical plank in his uplift philosophy was economic nationalism. This meant advocating black community development through the support of black business enterprise. There was much to recommend in this program, especially in light of the raging anti-black racism at the time.

Others, notably W. E. B. Du Bois, however, favored a more aggressive political stance, a more militant protest approach, and greater emphasis on a wider variety of educational options for blacks. Du Bois and a group of white and black progressives joined in 1909, to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP eventually became the most important civil rights organization in the twentieth century.

During World War I, however, a flood of African Americans moved northward in search of opportunities opened up by wartime labor needs. This Great Migration must also be seen as a protest against racial oppression, notably Southern Jim Crow. More than half a million blacks were part of the Great Migration from the South to the North. As a result, northern communities like Harlem in New York City and Chicago’s Southside grew rapidly.

Like the Great Migration, World War I was a turning point for African Americans. The democratic promise of the war was not lost on peoples of color. Many strongly supported the war effort. Many men of color served nobly.

Unfortunately for people of color, the democratic promise was a sham. Wartime service and wartime patriotism did not strengthen their citizenship claims. Veterans of color returned to an equally hostile, if not worse, racial regime.

On far too many occasions, returning veterans of color met violence and death at the hands of whites. Indeed, during what came to be known as the Red Summer of 1919, there was a gruesome series of anti-black race riots. Hundreds lost their lives.

Blacks reveal the ambivalent Americanism I discussed earlier. While sharing in the hope America represented, they fought against the oppression they confronted. At this time Du Bois spoke of the Negro American’s “twoness: the tension between one’s Negroness and one’s Americanness.” He explained: “One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As the histories of Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans illustrate, this ambivalent Americanism is a fundamental issue. Indeed, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

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Segregation And Lynchings

Miller: Waldo, there were a tremendous number of lynchings in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And these were unbelievable things. I mean, people were not just hanged. They were burned and roasted alive, in front of large crowds.

People would pack picnic lunches, and get on trains and go to see these harrowing spectacles. And no one wore sheets. It was all out in the open. This is the post-Klan era. What’s going on here?

Martin: I think one of the ways to think about this is to understand that white supremacy during this period was sort of at its height. There’s this scientific campaign to think about and represent black people as not only culturally inferior, but biologically inferior. To, in other words, separate them out from the larger body politic.

And when you get this sort of massive campaign to dehumanize and brutalize black people, this sort of horror of lynching is part of a whole strategy to create a view of black people that they are beasts. You have to lynch, because black men and black women are not like us, and if you want to bring them under control, you have to use these very, very horrific and violent and barbaric methods.

Miller: Yet people in the South, black people in the South, like Ida Wells — she fought back.

Scharff: Ida Wells fought back with every weapon she had, and got burned out of her press for doing so in Memphis. But, what Ida Wells pointed out with her anti-lynching crusade was that very often, the people who were singled out for lynching were the people who were acting most human.

Miller: Here’s Booker T. Washington. What’s he saying about lynching?

Martin: I think there are two Booker T. Washingtons. There’s the Booker T. Washington who is the public spokesperson, who was trying to bridge the relationships between whites and blacks. And that Booker T. Washington wants to mollify, he wants to soften white opposition to black progress. So he does not come out and vigorously condemn, he softly condemns.

He comes at it from a very, very political angle. He is not the thunderous opposition that you see with Ida B. Wells, or W. E. B. Du Bois, or some of the other, more aggressive kinds of leaders, because he figures he has to work behind the scenes with white power brokers, to try to get concessions for black people; so he’s sort of a politician in that sense. But I think the private Booker T. Washington is horrified, and I think his letters, and a lot of his private interactions with close friends show that.

Scharff: Think how hard it is to be having to mute your horror, and having to establish that kind of doubleness that you just talked about, and how risky it was for Washington even to give the kind of opposition that he did, and to say, “All right, I’ll take a little bit here, I’ll try to get the concessions there.” That takes a toll every single day.

Miller: Now, this is the Progressive Era. There are broad-gauged reforms, there’s agitation all over the place. What are Roosevelt progressives and Wilson progressives — what are they saying and doing about this issue?

Martin: I think most of them come off very poorly, and that’s a generous…

Scharff: Wilson progressives are Southern progressives, for the most part, and Woodrow Wilson is the one who…

Miller: Wilson’s record in the White House is horrendous, absolutely horrendous.

Scharff: …segregates Washington, D.C.

Martin: I think there is, from the top down, sort of a mentality which is, for lack of a better term, really committed to a notion of white supremacy. There are all kinds of ways in which, as I suggested earlier, many people see this as the worst period, not only because of lynchings. There are race riots, there are whole…

Miller: That’s the cruel irony of this. You know, you have this Progressive movement, with all this agitation going on, and it seems that under the surface, there’s a subset of agitators, you know, who have to do it on their own.

Martin: And, when we highlight these moments of intense local community-based struggles, we have a lens onto the ordinary lived experience of most people. And from my view, this is an important way to think about American history. It’s very much the struggles of ordinary people who are often marginalized — because that says as much about America, and their relationship to America as an outsider. Because the only way you know who an American is, in some ways, is by who you exclude.

Miller: The big struggle here — you know, the American Dream — is not coming to America, it’s making it in America, and how people make it against awful odds sometimes. Those are heroic stories.

Woman Suffrage

Scharff: Well, one of the amazing things that’s happening during the Progressive Era is that these local struggles are beginning to be linked up, and they’re beginning to be linked up by new systems of communication and transportation and also by new political organizing techniques — so that you get someone like Carrie Chapman Catt, who invents this winning plan for woman’s suffrage, which was absolutely unique, for the first time.

Miller: Explain who she is.

Scharff: Carrie Chapman Catt, who became the president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. She was an Illinois suffragist. She’d grown up in Iowa a relatively privileged woman. Somebody who, in order to campaign for suffrage, had it written into her marriage contract with her husband that she had to have a certain number of days every year that she’d be allowed to campaign for suffrage.

And, what she did was to organize the suffrage forces, local suffrage forces in each state, like a political machine. And so what they did, in some ways, was to use the kind of political organizing techniques that you find among your Roosevelt progressives and Wilson progressives, but to turn them to ends that I think probably Woodrow Wilson didn’t anticipate, and when he was confronted with them, was very uncomfortable with.

Miller: I think most national progressive politicians were uncomfortable with street demonstrations. And this is really interesting because it’s protest that involves risk-taking. There’s risk-taking right across the board, huge risk-taking, you know.

Washington was taking risks all the time. One step out of line and he’s done. They’d shut down his operation.

Women were taking risks.

Margaret Sanger was taking risks in New York with her birth control clinics. Getting thrown into jail. And Waldo, you wrote about a guy, a beautiful book about a guy who was taking risks all his life, Frederick Douglass. Where is he at the end of the nineteenth century, just as these issues are starting to break?

Martin: Frederick Douglass dies in 1895. That’s the very year that Booker T. Washington becomes the preeminent African American leader. He gives this speech in Atlanta, which elevates him to this mantle of national leadership. Whereas Frederick Douglass had been a very protest-oriented, aggressive leader, as I’ve suggested earlier, Booker T. Washington was more of a conciliator, more of a compromiser.

And I think there is this tension that existed among African American leaders at the turn of the century, among those like Booker T. Washington, as opposed to those like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, who offered a more aggressive posture which called back to the more… called back to the tradition that Frederick Douglass represented. But I think you’re talking about risk-taking. The creation of the NAACP in 1909 brings together a whole series of white liberals and radicals who are very, very much taking a risk in terms of, you know, trying to come together with African Americans, to think about, “What can we do to try to alleviate some of the horrors of lynching, disfranchisement, and all of that?” And I think that kind of effort also needs to be recognized and understood.

Miller: Why aren’t we hearing more about people like this?

Scharff: Oh my god!

(all three) (Laughing)

Martin: I think… you know, history is written by the victors. History is written by those who have a vision of America as sort of a progressive narrative, where you highlight the good and the sunny, where the underside, where the less-than-positive, where the bleaker aspects are seen as not necessary to sort of a mainstream narrative, and I think not only is that unbalanced, but it’s untrue. And I think what we’re trying to do as historians, on the cusp of the new millennium, is to try to think about ways to represent history that’s more inclusive.

You Decide: Washington or Du Bois?


By 1905 two African American leaders dominated the debate over the best course for racial advancement in America. Booker T. Washington became the best-known spokesman following the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. Foremost among those who rose to challenge Washington was W. E. B. Du Bois, who had a different plan. The two men became arch-rivals. Washington even hired spies to keep an eye on Du Bois.

Booker T. Washington did not think that social equality of the races was as important as economic equality. He said:

“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.”

— Washington, Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895.


Du Bois later called Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address the “Atlanta Compromise,” because it compromised social equality of the races in order to gain economic equality, But at the time, Du Bois wrote to Washington and said of the Atlanta Address:

“My Dear Mr. Washington: Let me heartily congratulate you upon your phenomenal success in Atlanta — it was a word fitly spoken.”

— Letter, Du Bois to Washington, Sept. 24, 1895.


You Decide: Who had the better vision for improving the conditions of African Americans in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois?

Booker T. Washington: What if you knew that W. E. B. Du Bois believed in industrial education for most African Americans, just as Booker T. Washington did?

W. E. B. Du Bois: What if you knew that while Du Bois believed that higher education was essential for advancement, his plan called for college education for only a “Talented Tenth” of African Americans?


Booker T. Washington was one of the leading promoters of what was called “industrial education.” He believed this was the best kind of education for most African Americans. In addition to basic skills like reading and writing, it was important to learn a trade that would lead to a real job.

“Many have had the thought that industrial training was meant to make the Negro work, much as he worked during the days of slavery. This is far from my idea of it. If this training has any value for the Negro, as it has for the white man, it consists in teaching the Negro how rather not to work, but how to make the forces of nature — air, water, horse-power, steam, and electric power — work for him…. There should be a more vital and practical connection between the Negro’s educated brain and his opportunity of earning his daily living.”

— Washington, The Future of the American Negro, 1899

“I am an earnest advocate of manual training and trade teaching for black boys, and for white boys, too. I believe that next to the founding of Negro colleges the most valuable addition to Negro education since the war, has been industrial training for black boys.”

— Du Bois, The Negro Problem, 1903

Du Bois emphasized the importance of higher education for African Americans.

“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first be to 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.”

— W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro Problem, 1903

“There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen.”

— Washington, Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895

You Decide: Who had the better vision for improving the conditions of African Americans in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois?

Booker T. Washington: What if you knew that Washington’s policy of accommodation did little to stem the tide of racial injustice of the period?

W. E. B. Du Bois: What if you knew that in spite of the hostile, often violent racial mood of the period, Du Bois advocated public protest?

Politics – Accommodation or Agitation?

The racial climate in the United States in the 1890s and early 1900s was described by the African American scholar Rayford Logan as “the nadir of Negro life in America.” Lynching of African Americans was not uncommon. Southern states had disenfranchised African Americans. Segregation of public facilities, schools, and public transportation was widespread. Given this potentially explosive climate, African American leaders pondered the best way to approach racial issues. Should they be dealt with quietly behind the scenes to avoid conflicts — or should they be approached with open, public protest?

Washington practiced the politics of accommodation. His public statements throughout most of his career can be characterized as cautious, conservative, and designed not to cause open conflict with the whites who held political power.

“One third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success.”

— Washington, Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895


“To-day he stands as the one recognized spokesman of his ten million fellows, and one of the most notable figures in a nation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticise [sic] a life which, beginning with so little, has done so much…. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds…we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.”

— Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 1903


The Niagara Movement, which Du Bois founded in 1905, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) both used public protest as a means of redressing grievances.

“The American Negro demands equality — political equality, industrial equality, and social equality; and he is never going to rest satisfied with anything less. He demands this in no spirit of braggadocio and with no obsequious envy of others, but as an absolute measure of self-defense and the only one that will assure to the darker races their ultimate survival on earth.”

— Du Bois, writing in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, 1915


In spite of his public pronouncements, Washington had an elaborate “secret life” that found him fighting for civil rights privately, by financing court cases, using his political clout to influence national leaders, and even helping Du Bois on several civil rights matters behind the scenes.

“It is not the Negro that keeps the South in its present dead political condition. It is the intollerence [sic] of the Southern white man. It is the determination not to permit freedom of speech and freedom of action.”

— Washington, draft of a Statement on Southern Politics, 1900

You Decide: Who had the better vision for improving the conditions of African Americans in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois?

Booker T. Washington: What if you knew that Washington was willing to accept segregation?

W. E. B. Du Bois: What if you knew that while Du Bois protested racial segregation, in 1912, he himself moved into a segregated neighborhood after he was denied housing in an all-white neighborhood?


When Booker T. Washington delivered the Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895, he was willing to compromise on the question of social segregation of the races if it helped keep the peace and allowed African Americans to advance economically. He seldom strayed from the position he took in Atlanta for the remaining twenty years of his life.

“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.”

–Washington, Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895


“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

— Du Bois, “To the Nations of the World,” leaflet, 1900.
He believed that all aspects of inequality between the
races should be eliminated as quickly as possible.


“We believe also in protest against the curtailment of our civil rights. All American citizens have the right to equal treatment in places of public accommodation according to their behavior and deserts.”

— Du Bois, explaining the principles of the Niagara Movement,
Washington Bee, July 22, 1905.


“The negro [sic] objects to being segregated because it usually means that he will receive inferior accommodations in return for the taxes he pays. If the negro is segregated, it will probably mean that the sewerage in his part of the city will be inferior; that the streets and sidewalks will be neglected, that the street lighting will be poor….”

— Washington, in The New Republic, 1915
(one of his last published articles)


In David Levering Lewis’s biography of Du Bois he recounts a 1912 incident when Du Bois found it necessary to compromise on the issue of segregation. Du Bois planned to move into an all-white community in New York City, only to be told by the housing manager that “it would be a doubtful plan for you to settle in a community… of white people.” It was particularly ironic since the company that built the homes Du Bois was denied access to, the Russell Sage Foundation Home Company, was part of the Russell Sage Foundation which was established to promote the welfare of African Americans and Native Americans.

You Decide: Who had the better vision for improving the conditions of African Americans in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois?

Booker T. Washington: What if you knew that while most of his race remained in poverty, Washington was a close associate of some of the richest men in America?

W. E. B. Du Bois: What if you knew that Du Bois advocated in favor of socialism and public ownership of industry?



At the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans were just two generations away from the days of slavery. Poverty hounded most African Americans, and a new wave of laws and practices designed to segregate the races only made things worse. In an era of Big Capital and new industrial millionaires, the gulf between rich and poor was growing. Economic advancement became the most important measure of the success of an individual and the success of a race. On this issue Washington and Du Bois found common ground, but usually with an important difference in emphasis.

“So long as the Negro is permitted to get education, acquire property, and secure employment, and is treated with respect in the business or commercial world — as is now true in the greater part in the South — I shall have the greatest faith in his working out his own destiny in our Southern States.”

— Washington, The Future of the American Negro, 1899.

Booker T. Washington was a close friend of a number of the wealthiest capitalists and philanthropists of his day, such as Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, Julius Rosenwald, head of Sears Roebuck & Co., and John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, all of whom donated money to Washington’s school, Tuskegee Institute.

“I believe within a few years through the education of public sentiment that the name of Andrew Carnegie will be exalted as the hero of peace as much as the name of Napoleon Bonaparte as the hero of war. Mr. Carnegie has given and is giving his life and means not in devising methods of slaying men, but in devising methods of saving men….”

— Washington, Address before the Fourth American Peace Conference, 1913.

Du Bois, like Washington, believed that economic advancement was central to race progress in America. But he took his criticism of capitalism much farther than Washington was willing to do.

“We especially complain against the denial of equal opportunities to us in economic life: in the rural districts of the South this amounts to peonage and virtual slavery; all over the South it tends to crush labor and small business enterprises; and everywhere American prejudice, helped often by iniquitous laws, is making it more difficult for Negro-Americans to earn a decent living.”

— Du Bois, explaining the principles of the Niagara Movement,
Washington Bee, July 22, 1905.

Du Bois described himself as a “Socialist of the Path” who believed the best road to economic salvation was “greater public ownership of the public wealth for the public good…”

“…we are approaching a time when railroads, coal mines, and many factories can and ought to be run by the public for the public.”

— Du Bois, quoted in the Niagara Movement magazine, The Horizon, 1907.

With what you now know, who had the better vision for improving the conditions of African Americans in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois?

Washington and Du Bois in Perspective

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) an educator and African American leader, was born a slave on a plantation in Virginia. He spent part of his youth working in coal mines and salt furnaces in West Virginia before becoming a house servant for a former Civil War general and his wife, the leading family in Malden, West Virginia. Washington obtained an education at Hampton Institute in Virginia, and in 1881, he was selected to become principal of a new all-black industrial and normal school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Under Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee Institute became an important model of black industrial education in the South. The school’s curriculum focused on manual training in job skills. Student labor helped build most of the campus as a way of learning practical skills from brick making to carpentry.

Washington’s career as a leading spokesman for African Americans was launched with a single speech at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. This speech, often called the “Atlanta Compromise,” played down the importance of civil rights and social equality among the races in favor of economic and educational advances for African Americans. At the time he delivered this speech, it was widely praised by both blacks and whites, although it was not long before critics of Washington’s position emerged to challenge his leadership. Early complaints about Washington’s accommodation to the white South came from the black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and others. But until he died in 1915, Washington was the most influential black leader in America, and the most famous black celebrity in the country, an adviser to presidents and representative to European heads of state. His autobiography Up From Slavery is still in print more than a century after it was first published.

W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) (pronounced Du Boys) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, in 1895. Du Bois became an outstanding teacher at Wilberforce and Atlanta Universities and became well known as a serious investigator of the conditions of black life in the South. He was a prolific scholar, publishing many books and articles during his long life. Perhaps his most important book is Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903 and still in print. This volume contained an important criticism of the leadership of Booker T. Washington. While Washington was a practical political boss willing to accommodate the realities of racism in the South, Du Bois preferred the realm of ideas and emphasized the importance of vigorous protest against racial injustice.

In 1905 Du Bois and a number of black intellectuals founded the Niagara Movement to counter the leadership of Booker T. Washington. A few years later, in 1909, Du Bois became a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was editor of the influential magazine published by the NAACP, The Crisis.After Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915, Du Bois wrote a remarkable obituary of his adversary, praising Washington for the good he did at Tuskegee Institute but also blaming Washington for the lack of progress the race had made under his leadership.

Du Bois eventually embraced socialism over capitalism and in the last years of his life, he was hounded by the U.S. government for his political views. He left the United States to live in Ghana, West Africa, where he became a citizen. He joined the Communist Party in 1961 when he was 93 years old. Word of his death was announced to the hundreds of thousands of persons gathered for the March on Washington in 1963.

Questions to Ponder

During the early Progressive Era, two African American leaders dominated the debate over the best course for racial advancement in America, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

1. How did Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois each contribute to the social and economic advancement of African Americans?

2. Do you think that the fact that Booker T. Washington was born a slave and W. E. B. Du Bois was born free may have affected their social and political outlook?

3. In what ways were the two men similar in their programs for African American education?

4. What was the most important difference in their approach to politics?

5. Who are the leading spokespersons for African Americans today? How do they compare with Washington and Du Bois?


Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. [Originally published in 1903, several editions in print].

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois, Biography of Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Smock, Raymond W., ed. Booker T. Washington in Perspective: Essays of Louis R. Harlan. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. [Originally published in 1901, several editions in print].


Ida B. Wells Barnett

Women in History – Ida B. Wells Barnett biography
A brief biography of Wells, with a reference to her anti-lynching crusade.

Progress of a People: Ida B. Wells-Barnett
A brief biography of Wells, with a reference to her anti-lynching crusade.

The Progress of a People – Ida B. Wells – Barnett
A short biography of Wells and a portrait.

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice
A biography of Wells with a reference to her crusade against lynching.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice
A biography and a photo of Wells with information about her crusade against lynching.



Susan, Suzette & Francis Laflesche

Susan LaFlesche Picotte
A biography of Susan LaFlesche Picotte.

Susette (“Bright Eyes”) LaFlesche Tibbles
A biography of Susette LaFlesche Tibbles.

An Indian Allotment. – La Flesche, Francis
The text of An Indian Allotment, by Francis LaFlesche.



Carlisle Indian School Photos

Carlisle Indian Industrial School History
The story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, with photos and related links.

Lakota Boys Entering Carlisle
A photo of three Lakota boys on their arrival at the Carlisle Indian School.

Lakota Boys at Carlisle
A photo of the three Lakota Boys, in the process of de-culturalization, at the Carlisle Indian School.

Carlisle Indian Industrial School
Information on the Carlisle Indian School with a photo of Tom Torlino (Navajo) as he appeared when he arrived at the school and then a photo of him three years later.



Charles Alexander Eastman on Society of American Indians

Ohiyesa (Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman) Santee Sioux
Excerpts from writings and quotations of Charles Alexander Eastman, with links to his writings.

PAL: Charles Alexander Eastman, Sioux/Ohiyesa, (1858-1939)
A bibliography and links to the texts of Eastman’s writings.

American Experience – America 1900 – People and Events – Charles Alexander Eastman
A brief biography of Eastman.

Indian Boyhood
The text of Eastman’s Indian Boyhood.

The Madness of a Bald Eagle
The text of Eastman’s The Madness of a Bald Eagle.



Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington NM Visitor Information Page
A brief profile and photo of Booker T. Washington, with related links, including one to a more in-depth biography.

African American Odyssey – The Booker T. Washington Era
An illustrated history of the Booker T. Washington era. Includes biographical information on Booker T. Washington as well as information on the Tuskegee Institute.

Douglass | Booker T. Washington, “Industrial Education for the Negro”
The text of Washington’s speech “Industrial Education for the Negro.”

Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education
A photo of Booker T. Washington with links to a biography as well as the text and illustrations of My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience.

Today in History: September 18
The history of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, with a photo and related links.



DuBois on “Twoness”

W. E. B. DuBois 1868 – 1963
A biography of DuBois with an excerpt from a chapter from DuBois’ book The Souls of Black Folk. Includes DuBois’ “Twoness” quote.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Between Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary Studies of Race and Gender
An article about American identity, with DuBois’ “Twoness” quote.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


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