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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.


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