October 2016

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The philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois


The philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois


African American discrimination following America’s Civil War was common despite the emancipation of slaves after the war was over. Arising from this prevailing situation there was the call for the uplift of black people and recognition of their place in American society. Among the earliest voices agitating for the improvement of blacks there were those of Booker T, Washington and W.E.B. du Bois. These early leaders presented similar desires for the betterment of the African Americans though their thoughts on the means of achieving this differ (Bauerlein 106). Trying to gauge their relevance in today’s African American community understanding of their philosophies is necessary. This understanding is easier in a brief look at the backgrounds of these early black leaders.



Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) was born a slave in Hale's Ford in Franklin County Virginia. Starting to work from a tender age, he manages to take himself through school eventually enrolling at Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute, Virginia (Washington 2010). He graduated in 1875. Six years out of Hampton, Washington pioneers and then Tuskegee and Industrial Institute. This institution is a reflection of the leader’s outlook on what kind of education was suitable for the improvement of black people’s lives.


According to the trusted online source for academic writing William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1856-1915) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a mostly European town. Unlike Washington, Du Bois was born a freeman in America’s north. A bright child Du Bois had an opportunity to undertake undergraduate studies at Tennessee’s Fisk University and later Harvard where he earns his masters and in 1895 his Ph.D. The first African-American to earn a Ph.D., Du Bois was a voice in the race, discrimination, and segregation discourse (Du Bois). With the onset of the 20th century, the philosophies of Washington and Du Bois regarding African American uplift, and civil rights were starkly contrasting.


Washington in his address to the international cotton exposition in 1895 in Atlanta makes a notable explanation of his black empowerment philosophy. Foremost is his tolerance of segregation and Jim Crow laws under the “separate and equal” premise. Washington’s views this discrimination not as adversity but the opportunity for black men to cultivate civilization amongst themselves, before demanding respect and equality from whites. He attempts to be color blind on this issue. He was a believer in the equality of human beings and that black and white people should integrate into one American society. Washington was more passive in comparison to Du Bois in response to the Jim Crow laws.


Washington was a believer in self-help and blacks commitment to economic advancement as a precursor to equality. Towards this, he set up Tuskegee Institute as a vocational and tradecraft institution. Du Bois’ belief was that beyond these minor disciplines and training, the top crème of black academia was deserving of classical university instruction. This uppermost of black intellectuals was to guarantee competent stewardship of the black masses towards a better future.


On political representation and social rights, more so the right to vote, Washington’s’ opinion was that these rights can only survive from support by economic gain among blacks. His opinion of the agitation for civil rights was dismissive terming this activism as folly. Du Bois adopting the activists’ standpoint saw the necessity of civil rights including the right to vote (Bauerlein 106-114). This belief is among the driving factors for his involvement in the earliest incarnations of the civil rights movement most notably the NAACP.


These two black leaders at the turn of the 20th century are still under study today. Their individual philosophies in the context of racism and the discrimination debate are representative of a fundamental schism in the current black community. On the surface, the Du Bois approach remains more prevalent. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s to today’s “black lives matter” movement, his brand of activism and agitation is more popular among the black community. This is not to imply Washington's teachings and ideologies are out of touch with the current situation. In fact, in intellectuals like Du Bois the notion of black self-improvement is evident and is of high value.