On the Color Line:  The Early Ideologies and Methodologies of Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

On the Color Line:

The Early Ideologies and Methodologies of Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois

Georgia State University

On February 23, 1893, while doing graduate work at the University of Berlin, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois reflected in his diary, “I take the work that the Unknown lay in my hands and work for the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development means the best development of the world. These are my plans: to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus raise my race.”[1] Du Bois would follow this plan precisely throughout the early stages of his over 70-year-long career. As a professor, sociologist, civil rights activist, and author, Du Bois would become what some would consider a modern day Renaissance man, his work leaving a permanent impact on both the African American and white communities of modern America. While worthy of the praise, this illustrious reputation often overshadows Du Bois as an individual. His original thoughts, ideas, and the foundation that supports this groundbreaking man, are recurrently overlooked by his later prominence and controversy. It is through these first and arguably his most genuine arguments that Du Bois laid the framework for what would become the most effective strategy of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century.

Du Bois, 1904.
Source: Library of Congress

The racial problems and debates between that sparked this movement were far from new when Du Bois first confronted them as a student at Harvard University in the late 1880s. The efforts of his black predecessors had proved to him that the task would be daunting while his influential, southern white forefathers had made it perfectly clear that these types of revolutionary ideas were not welcome below the Mason-Dixon Line. Prominent African American leaders of the 19th century, people like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, would find the American power structure too corrupted with racist ideologies holding back both races. Du Bois, however, avoided these initial struggles by taking a more indirect approach to the white, political power structure. He stated in his manifesto at the 1900 Pan-African Conference in London, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”[2] This brief yet powerful statement, claimed repeatedly throughout Du Bois’ writings and addresses, would form the basis to which he would build his life’s work—to dissolve the color line in all aspects of American society, socially, politically, and economically. Du Bois intentionally focused more on the issues of class and education to gain the support of the Southern, white power structure his forbearers lacked.

The ingenious of Du Bois’ strategy started with his keen awareness and understanding of the unyielding ideologies of both the American white and black communities. By the time Du Bois earned his Ph. D. from Harvard, the first African American to do so, he was beginning to gain the attention of both communities. As a man well educated in history and sociology, Du Bois knew the power of ideology and the rhetoric on which it was built. He recognized from the failure of programs created during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction that no matter what legislation would be passed in favor of the African American community; if this stagnant, Southern ideology of paternalism and racism was not addressed and surmounted, there would be no real solution to what was referred to as the “Negro Problem” of the South. However, by acknowledging and using the power of rhetoric, Du Bois was able to deter initial opposition. In the perspective of a white southerner, the ideology of a class system was well rooted in the plantation economy of the white community. Consequently, the word “class” seemed far less imposing than that of “race,” something deemed inferior and threatening to the white former planter class. The same was true in terms of politics. Bourbon Democrats controlled Southern politics on the basis of white supremacy; any mention of political involvement among the African American community would immediately raise fear and resistance among whites. Education, however, a seemingly futile trait among a society as of 1890, was the key to political involvement and influence yet did not seem to pose as serious a threat among a majority of white Southerners. By simply replacing the word “race” with “class,” and the word “politics” with “education,” Du Bois was able to lessen the fury of his claims without weakening the fervor.[3] As a result, at least for public appearances’ sake, he had a seemingly less radical approach to the early civil rights movement, gaining both black and white followers previously weary of the radical social changes of Reconstruction. With his audience now established, Du Bois was ready to put his methods into action.

With concern to the white power structure, Du Bois would attempt to change the paternalistic ideology of whites by giving them the perception of a white-controlled, gradual change, while simultaneously manipulating and empowering the victimized African American ideology, all under the common theme of progress. In doing this, Du Bois’ strategy would be refined and simple: first, unite the African American community under one common, progressive identity; next, deter white opposition by making well-educated and professional blacks indispensable to the growing economy; and lastly, achieve political influence and equality through merit and aptitude. As plainly stated in his acclaimed The Souls of Black Folk, the achievements Du Bois expected for the African American community were as follows: “The right to vote, civic equality, and the education of youth according to ability.”[4] Du Bois would narrow these three goals down into the fields of education, industry, and politics. If these three fields were perfected within the African American community, the patriarchal color line that both economically and socially hindered the nation would give way to ideas of capitalism, progress, and eventually, reform.

It was no secret that words like progress, capitalism, and reform were taboo in the very much feudalistic society of the American South in the early 20th century. Discordant to Du Bois’ rapidly growing career in the academic and social realms, the South was still in the shadows of slavery and still ruled by the old planter class of the antebellum period. This region, by far, had the firmest racist and paternalistic ideologies engrained in both the black and white communities, having developed them since the birth of the plantation economy in the early colonial years. Furthermore, according to Du Bois’ 1911 research, 75 percent of the African Americans in the United States lived in the South. He comments on the fragility of the Southern situation stating that “on the part of the white South, their economic condition was pitiable, their fear of Negro freedom genuine.”[5] These economic and social fears of the southern white community were also very prevalent in the southern black communities, creating a region of tension and scramble for control. With both the black and white communities skeptical of radical reform or change, Du Bois would have to be the most cautious and mindful of his choice of words and methods used in this fragile yet significant region. The persuasion and influence of both sides of the Southern color line would prove to be pivotal to the disintegration of the color line itself, prompting Du Bois to pay close attention to his reputation and public opinion in the South.  

The Cover of The Souls
of Black Folk, 1908

This reputation would not go unchallenged. From failed land redistribution to fragile educational reforms, and eventually, disenfranchisement, the African American community was behind the rest of American society. In his first post-graduate sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, the first study of its kind, Du Bois found that in 1870, 22 percent of the African American population was illiterate, then dropped to 18 percent decades later. Du Bois confronted these staggering statistics and called for action in an address to the National Negro Conference: “The ‘method’ to achieve [civil rights and liberties] is by the recognition of the fact that the culture of every nation is measured by its slums and that its knowledge is measured by the amount of ignorance abroad in the land.”[6] In other words, Du Bois argued that American society, as a whole, was only as strong as its weakest link. The progress and improvement of the white community directly coincided with the progress and improvement of the Southern black community. With their fates intertwined, neither community could ignore the “Negro problem” any longer.

The low socio-economic status of the African American community far into the 20th century brought Du Bois’ strategy to its first objective, education. The education of the African American community had long been pushed aside or ignored by the federal government after Reconstruction. Du Bois made note of this in a fiery article in his brain child, the NAACP’s Crisis, “In Orleans Parish…the school board spent $78 for each white pupil and $48 for each Negro pupil…Something must be done to remedy a situation which seeks to fasten slavery permanently upon the colored people of the United States by denying their children decent education.”[7] While the education of the African American community was somewhat present around Du Bois’ early career, the education was limited, inconsistent, and based off of varied local resources and interest. In a personal letter, Henrietta Shivery, a schoolteacher and goddaughter of Du Bois, describes the pitiful state of her Mississippi schoolhouse: “I must say something about this school to somebody. System here is nothing. Principal quite backward…you can count the degrees in this school on one hand. The people here are all quite backward and dumb.”[8] These extreme conditions and experiences were prevalent throughout the rural South, calling into question the legitimacy and efficiency of the local, African American school. With the help of influential white Harvard classmates and colleagues like John Hope, Will W. Alexander, and Karl R. Wallace, Du Bois was able to not necessarily fix all cases of these deplorable conditions, but call attention to their existence and promote the continuation and expansion of African American education.

Within the realm of education, Du Bois most famously promoted what he called the “Talented Tenth,” the most educated, thrifty, and influential members of the black community. This group would serve as the model for Du Bois’ education experiment and the initial representatives of the African American community. What Du Bois called for in light of the “Talented Tenth” and the often over-looked well-to-do middle class, was a black, leading aristocracy; an influential class of African Americans that could provide better representation and influence over both the African American and white communities. Du Bois described the purpose of this leading aristocracy in an address given to an all black audience, “For the talented few the best higher training that suits them. And this aristocracy of learning and talent—the graduates of Spelman, Atlanta, Howard, Fisk, and Northern institutions, are not to be trained for their own sakes but to be the guides and servants of the vast unmoved masses…” He further explained, “unless the Negro people have a cultured aristocracy whose learning is deeper than a lot of high-sounding titles and silly degrees, and broader than the ability to make speeches, it cannot survive.”[9] This was the only way to present a strong, united front, by educating the black race on their flawed social, economic, and political institutions, while presenting both races the alternatives to such, Du Bois not only united the African American community but also the progressive white community, all under the idea of progress.

Book cover, 1920

On the tide of this progressive momentum, Du Bois strategically turned his attention and that of the African American community to industry and economics. Since Emancipation, the African American community had been virtually cut off from any glimpse of economic growth. Du Bois addresses this struggle: “The professions of law and medicine are closed to him except among his own people; the avenues of trade and transportation are rendered very difficult for a Negro and even the trade unions discriminate whenever they dare. Every step of advance which the Negro has made and is making is thus taken in the face of an unreasoning and often half-conscious prejudice which renders it doubly difficult.” With this, Du Bois’ goal was to inject the newly educated African American community into the mostly white-controlled industries of the early 20th century on the basis of aptitude and merit, cleverly replacing the “unreasoning and half-conscious prejudice” of both races with terms of profit. With the recurring threat of unionization and the need for skilled labor in the development of the early Twentieth century’s “New South,” white industrialists all over the United States were beginning to look at the newly educated African American labor force as a potentially valuable resource. Du Bois described William H. Baldwin, a railroad executive and “far sighted industrial statesman,”  “knew that Negro labor with proper training and treatment could be made effective and he and other industrialists also feared the new demands and growing organization of unionism among white craft laborers. He thought that in the South there could be built up two laboring classes who would naturally supplement each other and together make for the economic development of the New South.” This was the introduction of the African American community into mainstream American industry and Du Bois would play his cards carefully to secure African American status within this industrial realm.[10]

With an emphasis on education now in the infrastructure of the black community, however, African Americans were not bound to meager factory or agricultural jobs in the new century. A rise in professionals, Du Bois’ “leading aristocracy” was happening. A different kind of African American “class” was emerging that differed greatly from the victimized group of the 1890s and turn of the century. With an unprecedented number of blacks competing with whites intellectually and economically, the aptitude and competence of the African American community was becoming hard to discount. An increase in education had subsequently caused a rise in income among the black community and like all things American, money accounted for influence. While the initial scope of this influence was rather small, by 1910, campaigns like the Niagara Movement, the National Negro Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Pan-African Movement, all partially founded by Du Bois, were now on the national stage.

Being the secular scholar that he was, Du Bois did not settle for this new African American class simply on the national agenda. Instead, in an attempt to even further this new African American sentiment of being a substantial and influential class among both the black and white communities, Du Bois tied the African American experience to that of Europe. Since his extensive travels and studies in European institutions like the University of Berlin, Du Bois had reveled in what he called the “the Good, the Beautiful, and the Truth” of modern, progressive, 20th century Europe. This administration and connection to the African American experience is apparent in an address he gave to an all black audience in Louisville, Kentucky. Du Bois proclaimed, “[European] Men have begun to see that when 10, 100, or 1,000,000 individuals come to share their lives, to live together in cooperation, to constitute a village, a city or a state…the organization itself has a life and a meaning far transcending the individual lives that compose it.”[11] By uniting the African American community under the concept of Pan-Americanism, Du Bois not only successfully tied the black community into the international story but in turn, the Anglo-American story as well.

Du Bois 1946
source: Library of Congress

With these newly found ideals of unity and Pan-Americanism and with their foot in American industry and education, another push for suffrage manifested itself among the African American community. After the depreciation and redistribution of southern land after the Civil War, the ballot had become the ultimate sign of citizenship in the United States. The disenfranchisement of the black community shortly after the Bourbon Democrat took over in the South, post-Reconstruction had been a major factor in the oppression and strife of African Americans and their re-enfranchisement would be the final phase in Du Bois’ initial strategy for African Americans civil rights. The main reasoning behind the disenfranchisement of African Americans was that “the ignorant ought not vote.” To this claim’s credit, with high illiteracy rates and only limited knowledge of the actual system in which they were voting, early African American ballots, for the majority of southern blacks at least, were often misleading or manipulated by threats of violence and death. Yet Du Bois’ response to this reasoning of the “ignorant” was published in his book, Darkwater, in 1920. He said, “No civilized state should have citizens too ignorant to participate in government…no state is civilized which has citizens too ignorant to help rule it.” This statement reinforces Du Bois’ fundamental belief that “education is not a prerequisite to political control but that political control is the cause of popular education.” This argument will be the strongest and most affective in the fight for the African American vote.[12] 

Up to 1934, Du Bois’ plan had been executed almost precisely. Understanding that he would have to take a gradualist approach to the deeply rooted racial problems of American society, he stirred up radical thought and reform within about a forty-year period. The most brilliant aspect of Du Bois’ plan was that he implemented it without substantial opposition from the historically unyielding white power structure of some of the nation’s most prominent politicians, scholars, and religious leaders. With an emphasis on class and education, Du Bois initiated a shift of power in American society. This power was not necessarily simply taken away from the white community and given to the black. Du Bois was successful because he convinced both sides of the color line that shared power would result in social progress and economic profit, two key aspects in the Progressive Era in which Du Bois proposed these ideas. His choice of rhetoric along with his intellectual and logical approach to the struggles of the African American community had been essential in his campaign for progress and equality. Between the years 1897 and 1934, during the beginning and prime of his long career, Du Bois’ initial thoughts and carefully constructed methods had firmly established the foundation upon which African American civil rights and equality would be built.   

About the author

Alexis M. Rogersis a third year history major at Georgia State University.

Recommended citation

Alexis M. Rogers, “On the Color Line: The Early Ideologies and Methodologies of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois,”Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 1 (Jan. 2012).


[1]William E.B. Du Bois, diary entry, February 25, 1893, Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887−1961, Georgia State University Library.
[2]William E.B. Du Bois, “Bound by the Color Line,” New Masses (1946); Du Bois, The Negro (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1915), 122−3.
[3]Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People,” The Atlantic Monthly 80 (August 1897): 1.
[4]Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk,(Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903), 32.
[5]Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People”; Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 17 Du Bois, The Negro, 125; Du Bois, “The Negro Problem” (published in Papers on Inter-Racial Problems Communicated to the First Universal Race Congress, University of London, July 26−29, 1911).
[6]Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Benjamin Blom Inc, 1899), 91; Du Bois, “Evolution of the Race Problem” (paper presented at the National Negro Conference, New York, 1909).
[7]Du Bois, “Education,” The Crisis 38 (October 1931): 35.
[8]Henrietta Shivery to W.E.B. Du Bois, letter of correspondence, October 11, 1934, The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, University of Georgia Library.
[9]Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro, 311; Du Bois, “Postgraduate Work in Sociology in Atlanta University” (address given to school teachers in Athens, GA, 1900); Booker T. Washington, “Atlanta Compromise” (address, Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, GA, September 18, 1895); Du Bois, “The Spirit of Modern Europe” (address given to all black audience, Louisville, Kentucky, 1900).
[10]Memorandum by Du Bois to Paul Hagermans, 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, University of Georgia Library.
[11]Du Bois, “The Spirit of Modern Europe.”
[12]Du Bois, “Of the Ruling Men,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920), 139.
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