Africans are closely connected to the history of both North and South America. The African American's role in the social, economic and political development of the American states is an important foundation upon which to build racial understanding, especially in areas in which false generalizations and stereotypes have been developed to separate peoples rather than to unite them. Early white American historians did not accord African people anywhere a respectful place in their commentaries on the history of man. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, African American historians began to look at their people's history from their vantage point and their point of view. Dr. Benjamin Quarles observed that "as early as 1883 this desire to bring to public attention the untapped material on the Negro prompted George Washington Williams to publish his two volume History of The Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880."
Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Cotton Exposition Address, in 1895, set in motion a great debate among black people about their direction and their place in the developing American social order. Some, principally Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, questioned whether black people had any future in America. The black woman, who was very much a part of this movement, answered this question in the affirmative by pouring massive energy into building new institutions, primarily schools. This nineteenth century and early twentietn century reaction to oppression by the black American intellectual community was part of the search for a definition of the status of the African in the world community.
Although Booker T. Washington's speech set off debates among people of that time, it was misunderstood then and it is misunderstood now. The reason it was misunderstood was that this speech was a speech of strategy, and was one of the most unique con-games ever played. In this speech he maneuvered to appeal to all sides. He spoke to the white South, the black South, the North and he got what he wanted and what he needed. No one really noticed what he did. One reporter from Boston who did notice reported that as blacks came down from the balconysome of them were crying and some of them waved their hands toward where Booker T. Washington was standing. They shook their heads and said," Oh, no, Booker, no, Booker." Some of them began their retreat out of the South. They began the migration because they couldn't believe some of the things he had said. Yet, he had set a pace and had taken blacks out of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. We did not quite understand what he had done. The South misinterpreted the speech. They thought that he meant that he endorsed segregation and in the five year span from 1895 to 1900, a rash of Jim Crow laws came into being. That was not his intent nor what he meant.
During the twenty year span between his speech, in 1895, and his mysterious death in 1915, Booker T. Washington stood astride the life of black America in such a way that the social history of that period can be written around the life of this single man. He was, to say the least, a schizophrenic and probably much more than that. A black person in America cannot afford the luxury of just being schizophrenic. We could not get through a twenty four hour day with just two personalities. We need at least a dozen personalities so that we can hide from the people of our own race to whom we dare not tell the truth. And we move through life with our little bag of masks, and we put on different masks as we meet different people because telling the truth to these people would get us killed.
The first formally trained African American historian was W.E.B. DuBois, whose doctoral dissertation, published in 1895, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870," became the first title to be published in the Harvard Historical Studies. A few Black scholars believed that the African American had no African heritage to reclaim. W.E.B. DuBois and his followers stood in opposition to this view. At the start of the twentieth century African Americans were confronted with two schools of thought: the school of Booker T. Washington and the school of W.E.B.DuBois. In 1903 Dr. DuBois published a book of essays, The Souls Of Black Folks. This was a different kind of scholarship, more explanatory than argumentative. In 1905 he helped to bring the Niagara Movement into being. In 1909, the ideas of this movement helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
After being introduced to the international significance of Africa at the First Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, DuBois remained committed to the unification of Africa for the rest of his life. At the Second Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919, Dr. DuBois emerged as the movement's world leader, the capacity in which he appealed to the League of Nations and other international organizattons on behalf of African people.
In his essay, "My Mission," published in Crisis magazine, April, 1919, Dubois said:
I went to Paris during the time of the Peace Conference because the destinies of mankind for a hundred years to come were being settled by the big four, because they had the power through their armed forces, capital and propaganda machines to do so.
He went on to say that thirty two nations, people, and races had permanent headquarters in Paris. He felt it imperative for African people to make their presence known in Paris at this time.
The Second Pan-African Congress adopted eleven resolutions and submitted them to the Peace Conference, then meeting at Versailles. The first two resolutions applied only to Africans, calling for a Code of Laws for the international protection of Africans and for the establishinent of a permanent bureau to oversee the application of that code to their political, social and economic welfare. The remaining resolutions applied to Africans and people of African descent living in countries outside the African continent. The question of the slave trade had been raised by the British at the Congress of Vienna and the specific question of the Belgian Congo had been raised on the international level, but the Second Congress marked the first time that the Africans and people of African descent themselves had raised the international issue of their condition. Referring to this Congress, Dr. DuBois said:
I went (to Paris) with the idea of calling a "Pan-African Congress" and trying to impress upon the members of the Peace Congress meeting at Versailles the importance of Africa in the future world. I was without credentials or influence, but the idea took on. I tried to get a conference with President Wilson, but only got as far as Colonel House, who was sympathetic but noncommittal.
The Pan-African Congress of 1921 adopted resolutions similar to those of the 1919 Congress, but was more specific in the proposals they presented to the new League of Nations. They called for the establishment, under the League, of an international institution for the study of African problems and asked that an international section be set up under the jurisdiction of the Labor Bureau of the League to protect African labor.
After the Pan-African Congress of 1921, Dr. DuBois went to Geneva where he met with the head of the Mandates Commission and talked with Albert Thomas, head of the International Labor Organization. Through the Haitian representative to the League, the Pan-African Congress submitted a petition that asked that a man of African descent be appointed to the Mandates Commission as soon as a vacancy occurred. The petition also asked the League to devote some of its attention to the plight of the millions of black people living in countries outside of Africa who were being discriminated against. This petition, an interesting landmark in the development of African and African American political thought, had far-reaching implications for international politics because it asserted that the race problem was international and because it maintained that an international organization had the responsibility to concern itself with the problem within particular nations.
My point here is that W.E.B. DuBois was never a narrow partisan. For most of his public life, which extended over two generations, he held an international view of the problems of his people. He was a nationalist, PanAfricanist and a socialist, and he saw no contradiction between these positions. His love for his own people gave him an appreciation of all people. He was one of the pioneers that called for a reinterpretation of the history of Africa and of African people throughout the world. He said:
African American history cannot be honestly taught without some reference to its African background and the black American's search for the meaning of that background and its relationship to their present-day lives. The Africans who came to the United States as slaves started their attempts to reclaim their lost African heritage soon after they arrived in this country. They were searching for the lost identity that the slave system had developed. Concurrent with the black man's search for an identity in America has been his search for an identity in the world, which means, in essence, his identity as a human being with a history, before and after slavery, that can command respect.
In the fall of 1961, Dr. DuBois and his wife, Shidey Graham DuBois, took up residence in Ghana, at the invitation of the late Kwame Nkrumah, then President of Ghana. DuBois died in Accra on August 27, 1963 at the age of ninety five, on the eve of the historic March on Washington. On September 9, 1963, the Board of Directors of the N.A.A.C.P. passed a resolution mourning his death and calling him "a pioneer in the struggle for human rights." The members of the Board noted that Dr. DuBois was:
The prime inspirer, philosopher and father of the Negro Protest Movement, a founder of the NAACP, an impassioned and eloquent spokesman for equal rights, a fierce and uncompromising foe of colonialism and promoter of the Pan-African Congress, and the most eminent scholar and historian of the black race in America and Africa.
The resolution further stated that:
His literary, historical and sociological contributions were so vast and all-inclusive that no serious research in the African field can be done without reference to the work of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.
Now in the debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington we started choosing sides. We started choosing sides and we haven't straightened it out until this day. We assumed that we had no choice other than to choose sides between a political/liberal education and an agricultural/industrial education: either DuBois was right or Booker T. Washington was right. We could not allow that both of them were right.
Both of them looked at the world based on how they were reared. DuBois was raised in New England, a partial aristocrat. One could be an aristocrat in New England and not have any money. Washington was a farm boy from slave parents, and he did not know his father; therefore, he looked at the world that way. Both men were practical, based on each one's vantage point in looking at his world. And we needed what both men offered. We needed it at that time and we need it now.
Booker T. Washington's program would have eventually led us to DuBois' program and DuBois' program would have eventually led us to a consideration of Washington's program. We did not have to reject either one of them. At the time when whites were not paying much attention to our education, we could have innovated to the point of creating an educational system that would have moved ahead of American education. However, instead of leading we began to follow, and today we are still following a people who don't know where they are going.
We have not considered that the education for white people in this country is basically bad, and it is even worse for us. If we had followed Booker T. Washington's educational plan there would not be a boarded-up house in any black community. There would be black plumbers, black carpenters, blacks who own brickyards, and black technicians who would fix the houses long before they reached the point of being boarded-up.
Had we followed W.E.B. DuBois' program, there would be no inept black politicians because we would have learned how to make our politicians accountable to us, or else we would remove them. We should have had a wedding between what Booker T. Washington was saying and what DuBois was saying. Instead we called Washington a traditionalist and DuBois a modernist and did not see that there was no conflict between one and the other.
It was with Carter G. Woodson, another Ph.D., that African world history took a great leap forward and found a defender who could document his claims. Woodson was convinced that unless something was done to rescue the black man from history's oversight, he would become a "negligible factor in the thought of the world." Woodson believed that there was no such thing as "Negro History." He said what was called "Negro History" was only a missing segment of world history and he devoted the greater portion of his life to restoring this segment. In his own way, Carter G. Woodson answered the need of scholars of his day. After serving many years as a teacher in public schools, Woodson became convinced that the role played by his people in American history and in the history of other cultures was being so drastically ignored and misrepresented that he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, to conduct research into the history of the African all over the world. The next year he began publication of the Journal of Negro History, which has never missed an issue.
A chronicle of Woodson's far-reaching activities must include; the orgarization in 1921 of Associated Publishers, Inc., to make possible the publication and circulation of valuable books on the African American and American history that was not acceptable to most publishers; the establishment of Negro History Week in 1926; the initial subsidizing of research in black history; and the writing of many articles and books on African American and American life and history.