African Americans at the Turn of the Century


As America entered the turn of the century much attention was given to the plight of those living in the industrial north. Writers, photographers and journalists exposed the dark side of industrial urbanism. These activists, called muckrakers by President Theodore Roosevelt, were the warriors in a battle to reform America. These efforts at reform met with great success. From 1900 to 1917 America experienced great political and social reform. From the leadership of Presidents like Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Governors such as Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin to private citizens like Jane Addams. The spirit of progress swept through America. But it did not sweep south.

The Progressive Movement was centered in northern industrial cities and the problems inherent in that environment. The problems of African Americans, known then as Negroes, seemed distant. African Americans toiled in the darkness of discrimination while white America looked on. The Supreme Court, given the opportunity to address the evils of Jim Crow failed to do so. Plessy v Ferguson, established “separate but equal” as the legal precedent thus ensuring years of de Juris segregation. Attempting to escape the discrimination of the south many African American migrated north. Segregation, de Juris and de facto followed them. “Negro” and “Colored” schools and neighborhoods created a system of continuing discrimination and in opportunity. Clearly the progressives did not include the Negro in their plight.

There arose many who would stand up against the injustice and the inhumanity. Among these were W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.

Booker T. Washington

(1856-1915), American educator, who urged blacks to attempt to uplift themselves through educational attainments and economic advancement.

Washington was born April 5, 1856, on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia, the son of a slave. Following the American Civil War, his family moved to Malden, W.Virginia, where he worked in a salt furnace and in coal mines, attending school whenever he could. From 1872 to 1875 he attended a newly founded school for blacks, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). After graduation he taught for two years in Malden and then studied at Wayland Seminary, in Washington, D.C. In 1879 he became an instructor at Hampton Institute, where he helped to organize a night school and was in charge of the industrial training of 75 Native Americans. The school was so successful that in 1881 the founder of Hampton Institute, the American educator Samuel Chapman Armstrong, appointed Washington organizer and principal of a black normal school in Tuskegee, Alabama (now Tuskegee University). Washington made the institution into a major center for industrial and agricultural training and in the process became a well-known public speaker.

On September 18, 1895, in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington made his famous compromise speech. In this address he urged blacks to accept their inferior social position for the present and to strive to raise themselves through vocational training and economic self-reliance. Many whites, pleased by his views, and many blacks, awed by his prestige, accepted Washington as the chief spokesperson of the American black. More militant blacks, such as the American writer and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, objected to such quiescent tactics, however, and strongly opposed Washington.

Washington founded several organizations, including the National Negro Business League, to further black advancement. He died on November 14, 1915, at Tuskegee. Among his books are The Future of the American Negro (1899), the autobiography Up from Slavery (1901), Life of Frederick Douglass (1907), The Story of the Negro (1909), and My Larger Education (1911). The site of the plantation where Washington was born is now a national monument.

W.E.B. Du Bois

(1868-1963), American writer and sociologist, who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and educated at Fisk and Harvard universities and the University of Berlin. In 1895 he became the first black to be awarded a Ph.D degree from Harvard. He taught history and economics at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910. In 1903, in his famous book The Souls of Black FolkDu Bois charged that Washington’s strategy, rather than freeing the black man from oppression, would serve only to perpetuate it. Du Bois, as an ardent advocate of complete racial equalitydiscounted Washington’s views of blacks as a minority in a white society.

This attack crystallized the opposition to Booker T. Washington among many black intellectuals, polarizing the leaders of the black community into two wings–the “conservative” supporters of Washington and his “radical” critics. Although originally Du Bois had believed that social science could provide the knowledge to solve the race problem, he gradually came to the conclusion that in a climate of virulent racism, expressed in such evils as lynching, peonage, disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation laws, and race riots, social change could be accomplished only through agitation and protest.

After the founding of the NAACP in 1910, Du Bois served as the association’s director of publications (1910-32) and as the editor of The Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP. In 1926 he visited the Soviet Union and thereafter became increasingly convinced that advancement of American blacks could best be achieved through socialism. In 1934, having left the NAACP, Du Bois returned to teach at Atlanta University; he also served (1940-44) as editor of the university’s quarterly Phylon. In 1944 he again joined the staff of the NAACP, as director of the department of special research; he remained with the organization until 1948. Du Bois, increasingly involved in the promotion of world peace and nuclear disarmament, became chairman of the Peace Information Center in New York City in 1950, but the next year the organization was declared subversive by the U.S. government. During the 1950s he traveled extensively in Eastern Europe. Awarded the 1959 Lenin Peace Prize, Du Bois joined the Communist party in 1961 and settled in Ghana later the same year. Shortly before his death in Accra, on August 27, 1963, he became a citizen of Ghana. At the time of his death Du Bois was engaged in editing the Encyclopedia Africana.

Du Bois wrote some 20 books, including The Philadelphia Negro (1899), Black Reconstruction (1935), and a trilogy, Black Flame: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961).

Marcus Garvey

(1887-1940), black nationalist leader, who created a “Back to Africa” movement in the United States.

Garvey was born the youngest of 11 children in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. He left school at the age of 14 to serve as a printer’s apprentice. A few years later, he took a job at a printing company in Kingston, where in 1907 he led a printer’s strike for higher wages. Garvey then traveled to South America and Central America. In 1912 he went to England, where he became interested in African history and culture. He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and shortly thereafter founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League.

In 1916 Garvey moved to the United States and settled in New York City. There he incorporated the UNIA and started a weekly newspaper, the Negro World. A persuasive orator and author, Garvey urged American blacks to be proud of their race and preached their return to Africa, their ancestral homeland. To this end he founded the Black Star Line in 1919 to provide steamship transportation, and the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. Garvey attracted thousands of supporters and claimed two million members for the UNIA. He suffered a series of economic disasters, however, and in 1922 he was arrested for mail fraud. Garvey served as his own defense attorney at his trial, was convicted, and went to prison in 1925. His sentence was commuted two years later, but he was immediately deported to Jamaica. Unable to resurrect the UNIA or regain his influence, Garvey moved to London, where he died in relative obscurity.

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