W. E. B. Du Bois Summary and Analysis
W. E. B. Du Bois was born in 1868. His Franco-Haitian father left the family early, and he was raised by his mother. Always aware of racial differences, at age fifteen he wrote to The New York Globe to protest about the Civil Rights Act of 1875 being declared unconstitutional. But most welcomed the declaration, saying that protections against discrimination in housing and employment constituted “favoritism” to Blacks.
Segregationists argued that the “separate but equal” approach of the New South represented “racial progress.” While some contended that racial prejudices were dying out, popular literature continued to suggest that Black men outside of slavery were degenerating into brutishness again.
Meanwhile, Du Bois, an “extraordinary negro,” yearned to go to Harvard. Charitable whites in his town did raise funds to send him to Fisk University of Nashville, a Black college, where he became editor of the newspaper. Here he reviewed, and embraced, George Washington Williams’s first history of Blacks in America, written by a Black man. Du Bois was influenced by William’s assimilationist ideas and commentary that Black people in the US were now advanced and sophisticated.
After Fisk, Du Bois left for Harvard in 1888, even as Jim Crow segregationists in the South were debating whether association with whites was “civilizing” for Blacks or if they should be segregated.
In 1890, a bill was introduced by South Carolina and a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon to fund Black emigration to Africa, an attempt to end tensions between poor white farmers and southern Blacks. Colonization was being much discussed again, with some freed Blacks arguing that it was their duty to redeem “savage” Africa, having been civilized by whites. The Reparations movement, however, was also on the rise, supported by poor Blacks who wanted compensation, but this was opposed furiously by whites and also by Black elites.
Du Bois excelled at Harvard, where he consumed the ideas that he was “extraordinary” largely because of his European ancestry and that slavery had morally and socially crippled Blacks. Rutherford B. Hayes offered to underwrite the education of a talented “young colored man”: thus funded, Du Bois enrolled at the University of Berlin. Meanwhile, another bill was proposed seeking federal supervision of elections. It did not pass.
An “understanding clause” meant that racist states implemented race-veiled restrictions, including literacy tests and poll taxes, to prevent Blacks (and many poor Whites) from voting. Laws were instituting segregating nearly all aspects of life in the south, from water fountains to transportation to the women’s movement. Resistance to these laws caused a rise in lynchings; Ida B. Wells released an 1892 pamphlet noting that nearly all lynching victims had been charged with, but never convicted of, rapes of white women. Meanwhile, White women were encouraged to believe that no Black woman could be “virtuous.”
When Du Bois’s funding ran out before he could defend his doctoral thesis, he returned to America and took up a position teaching at Wilberforce, a college in Ohio. He felt sure that American racism could be educated away, believing that most racist Americans were simply “stupid” and did not realize that Black men like himself could be highly intelligent and educated. Booker T. Washington, the new figurehead for Black rights after the death of Douglass, offered more compromise in public, such as the 1895 Atlanta Compromise, which encouraged workers to embrace labor and see it as the first step towards upward progression for Black Americans. When biracial Homer Plessy challenged the segregationist laws of Louisiana, he lost his case, which opened the doors to the full legislation of segregation and Jim Crow laws in the south.
In 1896, Frederick Hoffman published a book claiming that where Blacks had once been “healthy” and “cheerful,” they were now...
(The entire section is 3,063 words.)