To be sure, the political ideologies of all three of these outstanding personages have
been extensively treated in hundreds of books and articles, but comparisons of the
social outlines of their respective lives have been less frequent. The implicit
argument in this essay is that each of these giants of American history had extraordinary
social and personal advantages over their fellows from their pre-adolescent years
forward. A comparative review of various stages of their lives and times might yield
an insightful whole greater than its individual parts. This particular review is actually
a sketch of a comparative outline. What follows is a preliminary framework for such a
comparison, using the categories of 1) early family life and location, 2) youthful
exposure and experiences across the color line, 3) formal and informal education, 4)
location and travels , and 5) debut or entry in the on-going national policy debate and
struggle over race and social justice in America.Early Family Life
In time the first of the three, Frederick Douglass began life a slave in 1817 and lived as one until he was twenty-one. Booker T. Washington was born in 1856, four years before the Civil War; W.E.B. DuBois was born in 1868, three years after the Civil War. Both Douglass and Washington had unknown white fathers, Douglass once declaring that slavery did away with fathers, as it did away with families. DuBois was born in freedom to two legally married parents of color. Alfred DuBois, his father, left the family when his son was about two years old and disappeared. Thus in all three cases, the natural fathers were absent. Washington had a stepfather in the house. One consequence of this situation was that sons and mothers were unusually close.
In his infancy, Douglass and his mother were split up via the auction block. Up to age five, he was reared by a doting grandmother who also was claimed by the auction block. A "big house" enslaved cook on a Virginia plantation, Washington's mother had high hopes for him and, in freedom, begged books for his use. Neither Douglass nor Washington realized they were enslaved until they were about six or seven years of age. Their families were as protective of the boys' sense of self as circumstances permitted.