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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Booker T Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were the two great leaders of the black community. They however had different and approaches to the situation that their people faced and disagreed sharply on the strategies for black economic and social progress. This paper examines the different approaches that Washington and Du Bois had towards black liberation as well as the approach of Langston Hughes, a prominent black writer in the 20th century.
Having begun poor and achieved much, Booker T. Washington was an icon for the United States. His advocacy produced a connection between the blacks and whites. It further assisted in the co-existence of the two races. However, Washington seemed to accept and endorse segregation of the black people. He clearly was convinced that the social uplift after the civil war had started at the wrong end.
Washington believed that true equality could only be achieved in a society that blacks were economically independent and able to present themselves as productive people in the society (Washington 156). According to Washington, education was supposed to play an industrial role and thus what the African Americans needed was an industrial education. His was a philosophy of racial solidarity, self-help and accommodation. He believed that they needed to pursue this independence first and thus would have to first set aside their civil and political rights demands.
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He was convinced that the blacks needed to accept discrimination for some time, a time during which they would work towards gaining material prosperity. According to him, it is through their learning practical crafts that the whites would come to respect them and therefore gain acceptance as full citizens and become wholly integrated into the society (Washington 230). Being the main spokesman for the gradual economic approach, Washington urged the whites to offer industrial education and jobs for the black. For this to happen, he encouraged the blacks to give up their social and political equality demands, which he evidently saw as of less importance than economic independence.
The blacks were urged to take up jobs such as serving in white-owned farms, being domestic workers and skilled artisans so as to demonstrate their worth to the blacks and prove themselves as useful members of the society, and with this, they would be given social equality; Washington seemed to believe. He cited that the African Americans ought to see the white middle class as examples, change their manner of dressing and also that they (the blacks) needed to refine their speech to earn acceptance. If they worked on their looks and speech, the whites would in return improve their view of them.
Contrary to Washington, Du Bois insisted that civil rights and education were the key ways to achieving equality. According to him, surrendering their pursuit for this would be to support the perception that blacks were second-class citizens. This difference in approach and ideologies between Washington and Du Bois came to be a very important part in the history of the fight for civil rights.
In his 1903 writing, The Talented Tenth, Du Bois openly criticized Washington’s idea that the Negros needed industrial education. He argued that if technical skills were the object of education, the system could just produce artisans and not men (Du Bois 1). What needed to be done to make men according to him was to make manhood the object of education and this included broad sympathy, knowledge of the world and intelligence. His belief was that the curriculum needed to be based on the true life and with this, education would build brain quickness, hand skills and bread winning mentalities.
Du Bois was not satisfied with Washington’s idea of gaining economic independence; he sought for total equality in all facets of life. He preferred the liberal arts and argued that Washington did not value the study of liberal arts and that he ignored the evident economic exploitation of their people, the blacks. His main agenda was civil rights and he reasoned that the learned blacks could realize social change. According to him, the Negro race could be saved by its exceptional men (Du Bois 1). His opinion was that training the most talented blacks could solve the political and economic problems that they faced. It was these talented and cultured few who could guide the masses away from oppression and inequality.
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The exceptional few could guide the present day work of the Negros. Du Bois showed that despite the atrocities that the blacks had suffered for centuries like lynching of the brave ones, the ambitious youths being crushes, and virtuous black women being raped, the aspiration and chastity of the blacks was not fully crushed. An exceptional remnant was found and they continued to survive, aspire, persist and show their character and ability (Bu Bois 2). Du Bois sought to have the Negros liberated such that their aspirations were not belittled, their leadership recognized and not simply being crushed and seen as masses of black people.
The Negros could not progress economically if they lacked equal opportunities for education and political rights. Therefore, Washington’s believe that blacks could take personal responsibility for themselves was both baseless and absurd. While Washington advocated for industrial education, he failed to take into consideration that there was a shortage of well-trained black teachers who would even be tasked with training the new generation. Du Bois believed that Negro teachers were needed for the Negro common schools, that the black community needed ‘first-class normal schools’ as well as colleges (Du Bois 6). This according to him was the work of higher education for blacks and it had to be done.
Du Bois shows Washington as both an antagonist and protagonist. He believed that the blacks needed to stand up against Washington’s arguments. Although Washington provided some course towards progress, he further condoned stratification.
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Langston Hughes chose to approach the issue and plight of the black Americans through writing. In his poems and short stories, he challenged self-hatred, stereotyping and racism. Hughes got to experience the Harlem’s urban culture in the 1920s, an atmosphere that seemed like it was the beginning of a new era for the black people; an era that would usher in self-determination and self-confidence. With the inflow of black immigrants, the previously predominantly white Harlem district looked like a symbol of the attainment of all racial expectations: opportunities, equality, liberty and awareness. It was at this time that the Harlem Renaissance was birthed.
In his writings, Hughes termed the 1920s as the dawn of blacks. He wrote of a black community that was determined to labour towards achieving their freedom, in an atmosphere that brought about high optimism. However, it was not without the problem that had been experienced in the past, racism. For instance, in his short story, Slave on the Block, he showed the racial treatment of blacks in the way that Luther is treated by the Carraways (Hughes 144). This clearly meant that the relationship between blacks and whites still remained a tensed one. Despite all this, the future of the blacks was seen in the far bright light, which could show the much anticipated equality with the whites.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot
Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma hosted a large population of wealthy blacks in the United States, ranging from black doctors, business owners and lawyers. It was referred to as the Black Wall Street. Tulsa, a boom town attracted not only blacks but whites as well. They were all enthusiastic of the anticipation of prosperity and upward mobility. Since the town hosted a large population of blacks, the blacks were also attracted by its regard for racial liberalism. The whites however wanted to enforce white supremacy by creating a social order based on Jim Crow Laws (Ellsworth 1992). These different beliefs held by blacks and whites were irreconcilable and by 1920, the city was highly polarized; waiting for just a small spark to ignite a fire.
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a black teenager was accused of sexual assault, and that allegation served as the spark that would ignite to a ‘razing fire’ in Tulsa. Rowland went into the Drexel building and although it’s not known what truly happened, it is believed that he accidentally stumbled on 17 year old Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. What followed was a scream from the young woman and a passer-by called the police. The story spread fast, becoming more provocative each time it was retold. Although there was no evidence, the whites in Tulsa believed that Rowland had attempted to assault Sarah.
Rowland was arrested and his fate seemed certain, he was about to be lynched. On May 31, crowds of both blacks and whites started to gather in front of the courthouse where he was being held (Ellsworth 1992). The blacks were determined to avert the lynching which they believed that the white men were there to perpetrate on Rowland. A confrontation ensued between the two groups and a gun shot was heard. It’s not clear whether it was an attempt to kill or injure, a warning shot or simply an accidental shot. Whatever the reason, it triggered ‘fire’.
A running gunfight was started; the black and white men fought their way to Greenwood. The better armed whites were growing in numbers and shot at every black person including onlookers. They dragged them in the streets, ransacked and burned down their businesses and houses. The blacks were outnumbered and the Tulsa police were inefficient in bringing the riot under control. They requested for the help of the National Guard in controlling the ‘Negro uprising’ and while they waited for the guard, they did little to calm the situation. The city continued to burn under their watch. The soldiers declared a martial law and this ended most of the violence.
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On June 1, soldiers arrested a lot of the blacks while the whites were allowed to return to their homes. Before the riots were over, Tulsa had earned a position in history among the worst racially instigated nightmares (Ellsworth 1992). The riots left several dead; it’s believed that the number of the dead went into hundreds. Homes and businesses were destroyed leaving an estimated 10,000 blacks homeless. What had previously stood as the prestigious Black Wall Street was reduced to rubble.
It took almost a decade for the city to heal from its physical destruction. It was however never the same. Although not the worst racial conflict during that period, the Tulsa riot was the final in a series of main racial wars during the red scare. It was also the final war in which a white gang vented its rage on a black community.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. The Talented Tenth (Selections).1903
- Ellsworth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Louisiana: LSU Press, 1992.
- Hughes, Langston. Slave on the Block. Scribner’s Magazine. New York, 1933.
- Washington, Booker. Up From Slavery: an autobiography. Harvard: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907.