Reflections on Douglass, Washington and DuBois

by Thomas C. Battle

     Like the 20th century, the last decade of the 19th century was a time of change and anticipation, as the world faced the ending and beginning of centuries and the curious emotions such change entails.  While the modern world is distracted worrying about the reliability of its computer-based technologies, it cannot overlook or ignore the overt and subtle racism and ethnicism which remain rampant.  Despite the prediction of the emergent scholar W.E.B. DuBois that issues of race and culture would help to define the 20th century, we find a sudden sense of deja vu when we look back at some of the developments.  Wireless telegraphy, automated telephone switchboards, radio, motion pictures, x-ray technology and rocket propulsion were to have a profound impact upon life and culture in the 20th century, and all were in their infancies a century ago.  Even Cuba and South Africa were main issues in the international consciousness:  Cuba seeking its independence from Spain before succumbing to domination by the United States, and South Africa serving as a battleground for competing European interests before spiraling into the disgrace of apartheid.

     For many the pivotal year of the last decade of the last century was 1896, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson effectively legalized segregation in American society.  It was on this occasion that Walter Hine Page of The Atlantic Monthly wrote that "the Supreme Court of the United States is in my opinion a dangerous place for a colored man to seek justice."[1].  However, 1895 was also a year of great significance to African Americans. This year marked the death of Frederick Douglass, the articulation of Booker T. Washington’s "Atlanta Compromise" and W.E.B. DuBois’ completion of the doctorate degree at Harvard.  Although well known to many, all proved to be men of complexity.  Was Douglass’ marriage to a white woman his ultimate act of defiance, or a simple expression of equality?  Despite his criticism of Marcus Garvey and his Back-to-Africa Movement, it was DuBois who returned to Africa and today rests in the bosom of Mother Africa. Washington was considered a model of morality. 

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August 1999