Du Bois and Washington

Published October 1, 2002

I read with deep interest the recent article “W.E.B. Du Bois: Wellspring of American Negroes’ Dilemma?” by Archon Theadore M. Pryor of Kappa Boulé (The Boulé Journal, 64:1, Spring 2002). Archon Pryor has raised a dissenting voice and challenged an assumption that most have uncritically accepted. He has rebutted a claim made by Dr. Du Bois against Dr. Booker T. Washington with a clarion call for us to become steeped in all of our history, for there are no real winners with lopsided historical perspectives.

Unfortunately, open criticism of any type of Du Bois since Washington’s death in 1915 has been viewed almost as blasphemous. Archon Pryor is to be congratulated for his unwavering persistence in this discussion. I hope Archon Pryor’s article creates a productive and lively debate that’s long overdue.

As America moves rapidly from an industrial society to a technological society, it is of paramount importance that black youth learn from scholars who will discuss both sides of major debates in our history. In the May 21, 1984 weekly Jet magazine, Simeon Booker stated, “University of Maryland historian Louis R. Harlan won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Booker T. Washington. He undertook the [twenty-five year] assignment after black historians ignored the Alabama educator.”

While there has been a steady increase in research on black leadership and historical scholarship, Washington has not been revisited, probably because of Du Bois’s strong support among most middle-class blacks and academics in particular, who continue to promote a history that is lopsided.

One of Archon Pryor’s major points is that Du Bois’s charge against Washington has been “accorded more print space in history than is Washington’s response to it: A people are not judged by how much they can criticize, but by how much they can create.” While Du Bois’s 1903 treatment of Washington in his book Souls of Black Folk created an academic platform for criticism, the organization that supported Du Bois was the NAACP, and it has played a major role in sustaining that lopsided perspective.

A second point made by Archon Pryor was to raise the question, “Why had Du Bois, who, up until 1900 had been an admirer of Washington, suddenly turned on him?” While I don’t know the complete answer to Archon Pryor’s question, I do have a copy of a letter from Du Bois congratulating Washington on his famous 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition that I discovered while researching the Booker T. Washington papers at the Library of Congress. Also, Du Bois acknowledged in his autobiography that he sent Washington a letter requesting a teaching position at Tuskegee.

While Du Bois corrected the inaccuracies recorded in parts of his life story several times, he never mentioned the inaccuracies in his criticism of Washington. However, in Ruth Ann Stewart’s 1997 biography of Portia, Washington’s only daughter, Portia describes a very positive conversation with Dr. Du Bois, twenty years after her father’s death, regarding his criticism of her father. Together on the dance floor at a party being held in Du Bois’s honor, she commented, “this is history, isn’t it? I wish I had a picture of this to send to the Boston Guardian.” Du Bois broke up in laughter. Portia and Du Bois were friends until her death.

Archon Pryor’s most relevant question for the 21st century is why the American black community, after 128 years, still lags the rest of America so profoundly in education, income, gross annual business receipts, and home ownership. That’s the real question. The real answer will be found closer to Washington’s statement: “At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion itself, there must be for my race, as for all races, an economic foundation.”

Archon Lee H. Walker
Delta Alpha Boulé