How did leaders like Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B DuBois shape African American thought at the turn of the century? What were their backgrounds and perspectives?

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Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois advocated different approaches to advancing African American rights at the turn of the 20th century. Washington was born a slave in Virginia and witnessed the emancipation of the slaves as a young boy. He was a proponent of blacks gaining jobs in areas where whites would provide them with work in the Jim Crow South. In his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech, he suggested that blacks first gain economic power and later address political rights.

W. E. B. Du Bois had a very different upbringing than that of Washington. Du Bois was raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and was the first African American person to earn a doctoral degree at Harvard. He proposed that well-educated blacks, whom he called "the talented tenth," push for political gains and rights right away, and he came to disagree with Washington's stance of gaining economic power first.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi. She later became a journalist and launched an investigation into the lynching of African Americans. She advocated both the advancement of civil rights and the advancement of women's rights. Her position as a woman gave her a different perspective than that of other civil rights leaders at the time.

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Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856 and then suffered from poverty and worked as child laborer before obtaining an education. He became the head of and was instrumental in growing the Tuskegee Institute into a prospering enterprise.

Washington believed black people should accommodate themselves to whites and focus on economic gains within limited spheres as industrial workers. He advised giving up on the civil rights struggle to end segregation and discrimination, arguing that over time, economic increases would win black people a respected place at the table of white politics. He was a proponent of the 1895 Atlanta Compromise, in which southern whites promised to help black people achieve better educational and economic opportunities if they would give up the push for equal rights.

W. E. B. DuBois was born in 1868, into much more comfortable circumstances than Washington. He was born to freedom and into a somewhat integrated environment. Because of his greater privilege, he was able to obtain a first-class university education at the University of Berlin—at that time one of the premier universities in the world—and to earn a doctorate from Harvard. Perhaps due to his opportunities, DuBois was not sympathetic to the kind of compromises Washington was willing to make. DuBois insisted on advocating and working for equal rights for black people. In his very influential book, The Souls of Black Folk, he argued that the black soul or spirit would be destroyed should black people further embrace the second-class citizenship promoted by Washington. DuBois went on to become a founder of the NAACP.

Ida B. Wells was much like DuBois in her staunch advocacy for civil rights. She wanted no compromise on equality, either on the basis of race or sex, and became a feminist and suffragist even after white suffragists discriminated against her because of her race. She was an important journalist in her era and did much to research and expose lynching. Like DuBois, she was born into the world of relative freedom and reconstruction, and she was able to gain education more easily than Booker T. Washington.

History has favored DuBois and Wells in their advocating for full equality for black people, as efforts at compromise were historically unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Washington was important as an early leader and advocate of African Americans in the United States and respected by other black folks for his rise from slavery and poverty to leadership and fame.

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