W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were both very important black leaders during the turn of the 20th century. Each had their own opinion about how to fix the problems of inequality and injustice that existed in the South. This time period, which occurred shortly after the Civil War, was a time of uncertainty for many Blacks in the South. DuBois and Washington both offered very different solutions for this problem, which are discussed in Washington’s Up from Slavery and DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. This disagreement on the solution can be attributed to the differences in their backgrounds as well as the differences of opinion about the social and political system within the South at that time.
Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and grew up in the South, worked his way into a position of leadership throughout his life. Each step that he made into the position of a leader was a difficult one for which he had to work very hard. He was always an employee or a slave for whites within his community. As a child Washington viewed education as an unattainable right that a slave could never have. He discusses this background when he says, “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” Freedom was an idea that was far from reach in the eyes of a slave and achieving that was the their dream. Because of this, Washington did not see eye to eye with W.E.B. DuBois on issues of social equality.

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On the other hand, W.E.B. DuBois grew up as a free man in the North. He was educated and raised in a white environment, but with whites being his peers instead of his masters or his employers. This is very important information when analyzing the way each viewed the future of their race. Growing up as he did, DuBois was more aware of racial injustice in society. He saw that blacks were treated differently just because of the color of their skin and not because of their education. It infuriated DuBois to see this social injustice and how any African American could stand for it, “few men worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” This is because he was always given the comfort of freedom while growing up and never had to fight for it as slaves did. This caused him to see the social injustice between races in the big picture where Booker T. Washington and other slaves were happy with being free and did not worry too much about social inequalities.

Although their methods to solve the race crisis in the South of the late 19th century were different, DuBois and Washington both wanted the same result, to lift up the African Americans and put their needs first in the community. DuBois preferred to reach this positive result by demanding political, social and economic equality. He demanded that African Americans have the same rights as all citizens do and if they did not achieve it, the race was being sold short. He spoke about the need for African Americans to become leaders in the community and that the black race needed intelligent, educated individuals to take them in the right direction. With community leaders, blacks could also earn the right to vote, which was a serious problem during this time period. He disagreed with Washington’s ideas of vocation training because he felt that African Americans needed role models and leaders within the community or they would never receive equality, neither socially or politically. This is apparent when DuBois says “to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith.”

Booker T. Washington took a different approach. He thought that segregation was okay and that whites and blacks could be as separate as five fingers on a hand in the social aspects but that both races on the same hand would lead to mutual progress of both races. He thought that African Americans needed vocational, or trade, education to find their place in the South. Once receiving vocational training, blacks could become viable parts of the economy without disruption. They could become black business owners and eventually form an independent African American business organization. Once this was formed, the organization could help other blacks form businesses in the community. Washington felt this solution would help both races and better the economic condition of the South as a whole.

Washington instilled hope in the hearts of African Americans with his plan while accommodating the social conditions of the time. This means he did not oppose the whites in the area and wanted to work with them to make the South stronger. He saw whites as the ones who protected all Southerners during the war and blacks as the ones who handled the plantations while the owners were fighting battles. He promoted the idea that both races could win by following a plan to work together but separately. DuBois did not want to be accommodating with his solution. He felt that following the guidelines of Washington would accommodate social, political and economic injustices currently in place in the South. For this reason, his plan demanded equality and shirked the idea of segregation because it could never truly be equal.

The African Americans of this time were given hope with the emergence of two great leaders, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Even in a time of great demoralization and disenfranchisement, these two leaders with two solutions to the race problem of the South, filled blacks with the idea that things would get better. Slavery had ended and African Americans were free in the South, which was the first step to equality of the races. Both of these prominent figures had the same result in mind but disagreed on the way to go about achieving this result.

  • DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm (accessed March 18, 2014.)
  • Washington, Booker T. “Up from Slavery.” Project Gutenberg. Http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2376/2376-h/2376-h.htm (accessed March 18, 2014.)