African American Leaders' Response to Segregation
Frameworks for America's Past
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How to respond to segregation?

   The spread of racial segregation in the South in the decades after Reconstruction left black leaders with difficult questions.  Should they try to end the system of Jim Crow laws?  Or would it be better to concentrate instead on just trying improving the day-to-day life of blacks?

   The photo shows a black family in Georgia in 1907.  Many families like this were very poor.  They worked as farm laborers in the fields, but rarely were able to save enough to buy land of their own.  Especially with the spread of segregation, there were not many ways to get ahead in life.

Two black leaders, two different views

   The men shown here, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, were among the most important black leaders in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They had very different views, however, of the best way to deal with the issue of segregation.

W.E.B. Du Bois
Writer and scholar - from Massachusetts
(1868 - 1963)

Booker T. Washington
Educator - from Virginia
(1856 - 1915)

Quick summary:
Booker T. Washington

   We can accept segregation - it won't last forever.  We should focus now on building new schools that will teach our young people useful job skills.  That will help us lift ourselves up the ladder of success.

   Booker T. Washington believed that trying to fight against Jim Crow laws directly would never succeed.  He hoped that segregation would fade away as blacks improved their lives and moved into better jobs. 

   Washington said the best way to help the masses of blacks living in the South would be to create schools that would focus on vocational education.  Vocational education means training for skilled jobs in trades such as carpentry, iron work, brick laying, roofing, and printing.  Skilled jobs pay much better than unskilled jobs, and create more opportunities to start one's own business.

Getting started at Tuskegee Institute

    In 1881 Booker T. Washington was hired to start a school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama.  There he began putting his ideas about education into action.  The first photo shows a carpentry (wood working) class for young men at the Tuskegee Institute.  The second shows a class for young women.

It was an idea that spread widely

   Washington's ideas inspired other black leaders in communities all across the South to start vocational schools.  This photo shows a class for young men at the
Manassas Industrial School in Manassas, Virginia.  It opened in 1894, led by the efforts of a local woman named Jennie Dean who had herself once been a slave.  Whites helped support many of these new schools by donating money for new buildings and equipment.

Photo courtesy the Manassas Museum System, Manassas, Virginia.


Quick summary:
W.E.B. Du Bois

   Don't accept segregation!  It puts us at a great disadvantage.  In education, our main goal should be to increase the number of black college graduates.
   W.E.B. Du Bois criticized Booker T. Washington for accepting segregation of the races.  Segregation, he said, put blacks at a severe disadvantage in life.  Du Bois said African Americans should demand full political, civil, and social rights immediately

   Du Bois believed that schools for vocational education were good, but he argued that Washington put way too much emphasis that approach.  Du Bois said that the biggest goal should be to expand the number of blacks with college degrees.

  Colleges for African Americans

   The photo shows the library of Fisk University in Tennessee around 1900.  Like a small number of other colleges for African Americans, it was started just after the Civil War ended.  Du Bois himself graduated from Fisk University in 1888.

Creating a new generation of leaders

   W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to increase the number of college educated blacks because he knew they would go on to become the teachers, preachers, business managers, and leaders in their communities.

   This photo from 1899 shows some of the women students at Fisk University who wanted to become teachers.  They practiced their teaching skills by working with young children from the neighborhoods near the university.

Ida Wells-Barnett
Newspaper writer - from Mississippi
(1862 - 1931)
Ida Wells-Barnett:
The power of her pen

   Ida Wells was born into slavery during the Civil War, but with freedom rose to become a newspaper writer and champion for the rights of black people.

   Wells was working as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, when she challenged a railroad company that refused to let her sit in the first class ladies car.  An article she wrote about it led to an offer to write for a newspaper in Washington, D.C.

   Wells is most famous for bringing national attention to the cruel practice of lynching.  Lynching is the term for the killing of an accused person by a mob, without waiting for a trial.  While both whites and blacks were sometimes victims, in the South of the late 1800s and early 1900s lynchings of blacks were far more common.

   Ida Wells married an attorney named Ferdinand Barnett, and became one of the first married woman in America to keep her own last name, as well as her husband's.  She was a life-long supporter of women's rights, as well as rights for African Americans.


   Du Bois and Wells-Barnett were part of a group of whites and blacks who met in New York City in 1909 to create The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  The organization's purpose was to improve life for African Americans, and to fight against segregation laws.

   The picture shows a meeting of the NAACP in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929.

Pushing for an end to segregation

   By the 1940s the NAACP had become a strong voice in America as it pushed for legal and political action to challenge segregation.  The drawing and photo below are from that time.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were finally made illegal in the U.S. through new federal laws and court decisions.

Looking deeper at this topic

   You can learn more about Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ida Wells-Barnett at your school library.  All lived full and interesting lives.  Ask the librarian for help finding a suitable book for your grade level.

   The school Booker T. Washington started at Tuskegee is now a well-known university that still serves a mostly black student body.  You can learn more about it at:

  You can learn more about Jennie Dean, the heroic black woman who started the Manassas Industrial School in Virginia, at this web site:

All images except those of the Manassas Industrial School are from the Library of Congress. 
Manassas Industrial School photos courtesy the Manassas Museum System, Manassas, Virginia. 
Some photos been edited or resized for this page.


Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.