1901-1903, W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk rebukes Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery

The Problem of the Color Line

by Arnold Rampersad

“The most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with the largest personal following.” Although this lofty claim by W. E. B. Du Bois about Booker T. Washington was a prolegomenon to an attack on Washington, Du Bois recognized his adversary’s striking achievements. The central one undoubtedly was Tuskegee Institute, the vocational school for blacks that Washington founded in rural Alabama (at the behest of the state but with only its modest financial support) when he was twenty-five. In his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington offers a memorable account of his life that served to illustrate his main educational, political, economic, and cultural ideas and to catalogue his top achievements. (Exactly who wrote Up from Slavery is not clear. In his acknowledgments, Washington thanked above all Max Bennett Thrasher, a white speechwriter and publicist employed by Tuskegee. Nevertheless, Washington scrutinized and approved the final text.)

The basic form of Up from Slavery connects to the deeper roots of American literature. It is, in part, a slave narrative, the key instrument of the abolitionists at least since Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). Up from Slavery is also in the classic rags-to- riches vein so popular in American culture. When riches mean civic leadership, the prototype is undoubtedly Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, which influenced Up from Slavery. The slave narrative was a moribund form by 1901, but Washington breathed new life into it—although he himself was only about ten years old when slavery ended (his date of birth was never firmly established). In Up from Slavery, then, he represents black ex-slaves as well as blacks who were born after slavery but were still caught in its coils. No brief for slavery, his autobiography nevertheless insists that the institution taught blacks invaluable skills and a similarly invaluable respect for discipline. “Notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us,” Washington announces, “the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did.”

Washington begins with a quip about slavery. Where many slave narrators had stressed the trauma of having unknown white fathers, or known white fathers who refused to acknowledge them, or the pain of not knowing for sure the date of their birth, he cracks a joke. “I suspect I must have been born somewhere,” he writes, “and at some time.” Slavery, he insists, had made victims of blacks and whites alike. Bitterness was thus pointless. In never acknowledging him as his son, Washington’s white father “was simply another victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had grafted upon it at that time.” When Booker’s mother steals a chicken to feed her hungry family, she is also “simply a victim of the system of slavery.” Washington asserts that many slaves were loyal to, and even loved, their white masters. At first, he says, Emancipation Day brings delirious feelings of joy, but by nightfall, the slaves are haunted by a sense of loss and turn to their former masters for advice.

As a boy in his native Virginia, Booker (eventually he will decide to add Taliafero and Washington to that name) toils in a salt mine and then in a coal mine— perfect emblems of ignorance—before he begins to hunger for literacy. After pestering his mother for a copy of Webster’s famed “blue-black” spelling book, he learns to read. He begins to go to night school. Employed in the home of the wife of a former Northern general, he catches a glimpse of gentility and humbly comes to revere it. When he hears about a school for blacks located across the state, he sets out on foot to seek admission there. At Hampton Institute, led by the charismatic young Hawaiian-born veteran of the Civil War General Samuel C. Armstrong (“the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet”), young Washington wins a place. There he absorbs the lessons that will guide him through the rest of his life. At Hampton, book learning is matched by training in crafts as well as rules and practices reflecting Armstrong’s military background. Students also learn that strong moral values are essential to the growth of their race. Personal hygiene is stressed, something typically ignored in slavery.

Up from Slavery, while glossing over major failures in post–Civil War America, supports the picture of Reconstruction as a time when often undeserving blacks and greedy white Northerners—carpetbaggers—unfairly exploited the defeated white South. The book also ignores the bloody campaign waged by Southern whites to regain power. In Washington’s view, blacks who dwell on past injustices invite social and economic paralysis. To dismiss history, he suggests, is to invite freedom. As a result, he does not mention Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision in favor of “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in 1896, only five years before Up from Slavery appeared. That decision, and others like it, emboldened segregationists and dismayed most blacks; but Washington accepts segregation as the price of black progress in the South.

In Up from Slavery, Washington faces at Tuskegee a succession of challenges and dangers, mainly involving money, which he overcomes by sticking to his key faith in the power of hard work, pragmatism, and the natural goodness of Americans, especially whites. Tuskegee grows into a campus of enviable proportions. Its leader preaches that acquiring manual skills rather than learning the liberal arts will lead to black progress. “One of the saddest things” he ever saw, Washington writes, was an ambitious but misguided black youth wearing greasy clothing, “filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying French grammar.” Taught carpentry, brick making, plumbing, and masonry, students at Tuskegee construct all of its major buildings themselves. The school comes to symbolize the benign future awaiting hardworking blacks who accept willingly the doctrine of white supremacy. As his school prospers, Washington’s prestige rises. Business tycoons, such as Andrew Carnegie, Collis Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller, and even presidents of the United States, hail it as a superb model for modern mass education.

Although Washington supported some clandestine efforts on behalf of civil rights for blacks, his autobiography urges blacks to pursue a strategic program of diplomacy and compromise. In his most famous speech, delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 (Up from Slavery reprints the address), he praises the traditional way of life in the South. Voluntary black subordination, he hopes, will lead to economic growth for whites and—to a lesser extent, to be sure—for blacks. “In all things that are purely social,” he declares, “we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Blacks should eventually possess the same civil rights as whites, but they must wait patiently until they deserve those rights. “Progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us,” Washington says, “must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”

Washington’s autobiography offers example after example of how faith in human nature, pluck, and hard work can overcome almost all difficulties, including white racism. His public honors and awards accumulate. Traveling in Europe, he is triumphantly received; Harvard awards the ex-slave an honorary degree. These are indisputable signs, he argues, of racial progress. At the end of the book, citizens of Richmond, Virginia, where, as a pauper, he had slept under a sidewalk during his epic boyhood walk to Hampton, honor him with a reception. This reversal of fortune is both a splendid token of his personal success and an absolute vindication of his cheery gospel of hard work, humility, optimism, and compromise.


To W. E. B. Du Bois, Washington’s gospel was heresy. When Du Bois published some of his “fugitive pieces” plus new essays in the book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), its third chapter, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” was a detailed attack on Washington. The result was to break educated black Americans into two camps. Opposing the most powerful black American was, probably, the most learned. Born and reared in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and schooled at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin, Du Bois created in Souls a work inspired by his knowledge of fields that include history (his doctorate, in history, was from Harvard); sociology (learned mainly at Berlin); education (he was a professor at Atlanta University); music, specifically the black “sorrow songs”; religion; and fiction (one chapter is a short story). In part, Souls is autobiographical. It begins with a lament about the painful moment when Du Bois discovers as a child that most whites see him as different racially and therefore inferior. “Of the Meaning of Progress” touches on a revelatory summer he spent as a student teacher in rural Georgia, where he lives for the first time among Southern black folk. “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” which mourns the death in Atlanta (from dysentery) of his young son Burghardt, is bedeviled by the sort of rage impossible to imagine in Up from Slavery. The short story, “Of the Coming of John,” dramatizes the brutal, tragic conflicts over race and sex that persist in the South.

Implicitly, The Souls of Black Folk rebukes Up from Slavery. Its most famous passage invokes a degree of psychological subtlety foreign to the latter. “One ever feels his twoness,” Du Bois declares of the average black person, “—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In America, a “veil” separates whites from blacks, who have no genuine self-consciousness but see themselves only as whites see them. Being black, he thus suggests, involves an inherent complexity and a tragic potential. Boldly he prophesies: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois also hints that this problem might be insoluble, given both the cruelties of European colonialism and the lurid events, from unjust court decisions to vicious lynchings, that accompanied the victory of Jim Crow in the South, where the vast majority of blacks then lived.

Where Washington favors plain language, Du Bois often takes the opposite approach. In his earlier, scholarly books, The Suppression of the Slave-Trade to the United States and The Philadelphia Negro, he uses restrained, almost austere prose; but in The Souls of Black Folk he sets himself free. In challenging Washington, he is analytical, precise, and polite even as he seeks to eviscerate Washington’s arguments; but in charting certain stark disappointments for blacks during and after the Civil War, including the collapse of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedmen’s Bank, he takes what is at times almost radical dramatic license. While imaginative language enlivens his ventures in sociology, it is fully released in his short story and in “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” which involves an unprecedented torrent of fury, bitterness, and despair. Groundbreaking essays on black American religion and the spirituals combine astute analysis with striking lyricism. An artist as well as a social scientist, Du Bois deeply believes in his innate right to cosmopolitan culture, despite Jim Crow. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” he muses. “Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So wed with Truth I live above the Veil.”

In 1910, a frustrated Du Bois would give up tenure at Atlanta University and move to New York to help launch the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as founding editor of its crusading magazine, the Crisis. He would retain that position until 1934. Washington diligently served his school to the end of his life in 1915, at which point Tuskegee began to wane in quality and prestige. Du Bois’s ideas about blacks’ “double consciousness” and “twin souls” would influence black literature for decades to come, from James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and beyond. The Souls of Black Folk supports the judgment of the NAACP in 1934, when it declared of Du Bois that “he created, what never existed before, a Negro intelligentsia, and many who have not read a word of his writings are his spiritual disciples and descendants.” He died in 1963—reviled by some people as a communist who had abandoned his U.S. citizenship, but mourned by many more as probably the most astute and militant of major African American intellectuals.


W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, 1903). Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901 (Urbana, IL, 1972); Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (Urbana, IL, 1983). David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (New York, 1993); W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century (New York, 2000). Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (New York, 1901).