Contemporary Black Scholars

Following the eradication of slavery, several black scholars began to speak out for their people.  Men such as Booker T. Washington, the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute; W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP and the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard; and Fredrick Douglass, an African American statesman and reformer, all recognized serious problems that were present in American society following the Civil War.  Their responses, however, show how complex the issue of status of newly-freed slaves. Some advocated activism and a demand for change, while others insisted that blacks must work from the bottom up for change.

Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal,“Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.
(You can see the full speech here)

1. What does Washington mean by his metaphor of African Americans “casting down his bucket”?
2. What is the chance that Washington speaks of in the second paragraph?
3. Does Washington think that there is equal dignity in manual labor and intellectual labor?
4. How does he suggest African Americans gain this dignity?
5. Do you agree with the last statement: “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities?” Why or why not?

W.E.B. DuBois excerpt from Souls of Black Folk
First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs, — needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.

To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others—usually the sons of the masters—wish to help him to rise. National opinion has enabled this last class to maintain the Negro common schools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life, and limb. Through the pressure of the money-makers, the Negro is in danger of being reduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts; the workingmen, and those of the educated who fear the Negro, have united to disfranchise him, and some have urged his deportation; while the passions of the ignorant are easily aroused to lynch and abuse any black man. To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in praising Governor Aycock, exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman, is not only sane, but the imperative duty of thinking black men. (Find in paragraph 22 and 23)

1. Why does DuBois want people to judge the South discriminatingly?
2. DuBois says that the South is a “ferment of social change;” what does this statement imply about the state of the South at this time?
3. Was the attitude of Southern whites toward African Americans uniform?
4. Does the fact that not all southerners thought the same way create a more complex situation in the United States? Why or why not?
5. This selection of Souls of Black Folk is a direct response to Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.  How is DuBois’s solution different?

Frederick Douglass, “The Serfs of Russia Were Given Three Acres of Land”
How stands the case with the recently emancipated millions of colored people in our own country? What is their condition to- day? What is their relation to the people who formerly held them as slaves? These are important questions, and they are such as trouble the minds of thoughtful men of all colors, at home and abroad. By law, by the constitution of the United States, slavery has no existence in our country. The legal form has been abolished. By the law and the constitution, the Negro is a man and a citizen, and has all the rights and liberties guaranteed to any other variety of the human family, residing in the United States….

In pursuance of this idea, the Negro was made free, made a citizen, made eligible to hold office, to be a juryman, a legislator, and a magistrate. To this end, several amendments to the constitution were proposed, recommended, and adopted….This is our condition on paper and parchment. If only from the national statute book we were left to learn the true condition of the colored race, the result would be altogether creditable to the American people….

We have laid the heavy hand of the constitution upon the matchless meanness of caste, as well as upon the hell- black crime of slavery….But to- day, in most of the Southern States, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments are virtually nullified.

The rights which they were intended to guarantee are denied and held in contempt. The citizenship granted in the fourteenth amendment is practically a mockery, and the right to vote, provided for in the fifteenth amendment, is literally stamped out in face of government. The old master class is to- day triumphant, and the newly- enfranchised class in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the rebellion.

Do you ask me how, after all that has been done, this state of things has been made possible? I will tell you. Our reconstruction measures were radically defective. They left the former slave completely in the power of the old master, the loyal citizen in the hands of the disloyal rebel against the government. Wise, grand, and comprehensive in scope and desire as were the reconstruction measures, high and honorable as were the intentions of the statesmen by whom they were framed and adopted, time and experience, which try all things, have demonstrated that they did not successfully meet the case.

In the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eager desire to have the Union restored, there was more care for the sublime superstructure of the republic than for the solid foundation upon which it could alone be upheld….The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow- man, “You shall serve me or starve,” is a master and his subject is a slave….Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him, swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders redeemed in stores, compelled to pay the prince of an acre of ground for its use during a single year, to pay four times more than a fair price for a pound of bacon and to be kept upon the narrowest margin between life and starvation…. (Found here)

1. What did the government initially do to ensure the integration of previous slaves into American society?
2. Did the African American have a legal standing, with equal opportunity following these actions by the government?
3. According to Douglass, were these attempts effective? Why or why not?
4.  What was in place that kept newly freed slaves from ever really gaining the status and rights that their white counterparts had?
5. Was the slavery problem in America over following the Civil War and Reconstruction? Why or why not, following Douglass arguments?