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7.4: Washington and Dubois

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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After Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era, two African-American leaders emerged with very different ideas of how African-Americans could improve their place in society. Read the documents below and try to discern the differences. How would followers of each man live their lives?

Atlanta Compromise Speech - Booker T. Washington

Source: Excerpt from Booker T. Washington’s ‘Atlanta Compromise’ speech, 1895 Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 and was nine years old when slavery ended. He became the principal of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school designed to teach blacks industrial skills. Washington was a skillful politician and speaker, and he won the support of whites in the North and South who donated money to the school. On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington spoke before a mostly white audience in Atlanta.

Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.

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.... 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.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested... As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.


  1. Sourcing: Who created this document?
  2. Sourcing: What was his job?
  3. Sourcing: Who was the audience?
  4. Sourcing: What might have been his purpose in writing it?
  5. Contextualization: What else was going on

The Souls of Black Folk - W.E.B. DuBois

Source:A book by W.E.B. DuBois called The Souls of Black Folk.

The most influential public critique of Booker T. Washington came in 1903 when black leader and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois published an essay in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois rejected Washington’s message and instead called for political power, insistence on civil rights, and the higher education of Negro youth. DuBois was born and raised a free man in Massachusetts and was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard.

Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876 is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began at the time when war memories and ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercial development was dawning; a sense of doubt and hesitation overtook the freedmen's sons,—then it was that his leading began. Mr. Washington came, with a simple definite programme, at the psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes [during Reconstruction], and was concentrating its energies on Dollars....

Mr. Washington's programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.... Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens....

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—

First, political power,

Second, insistence on civil rights,

Third, higher education of Negro youth, and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

  1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
  2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
  3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro's shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.


  1. Sourcing: What kind of document is this?
  2. Sourcing: When was it written?
  3. Sourcing: What do you expect Dubois will say?
  4. Contextualization: What else was going on at this time?
  5. Contextualization: Based on this document, what do you think African-Americans might have been feeling?
  6. Close Reading: What is Dubois’s criticism of Washington?
  7. Close Reading: In your opinion, what is the most powerful phrase in Dubois’s critique?

Section Questions:

  1. Corroboration: Taken together, what do these two documents tell you about American race relations around the turn of the 20th century?

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Jan 26, 2015
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