Not Always with One Voice

October 1, 2003

I do not think it will be profitable for me to give further advice which will not be followed. The conference is yours and you will naturally constitute it as you choose. I must of course reserve the right to see the final list of those invited and to decide then whether my own presence is worth while." So went W.E.B. Du Bois' RSVP to Booker T. Washington and his Carnegie Hall Conference, a seminal event in the history of American civil rights and one preserved, in exchanges such as this, in a remarkable gift to Duke's Special Collections Library.

In August 2002, Dr. and Mrs. Marion Jones of Los Angeles gave to the John

Hope Franklin Collection of African and African-American Documentation more than a hundred items of original correspondence, either to or from Washington, leading up to the conference. Besides shedding light on Washington's relationships with various African-American leaders--among them Whitefield McKinlay, Washington's adviser; Kelly Miller, a Harvard professor known as "the philosopher of the race question"; T. Thomas Fortune, editor of The New York Age; Francis J. Grimke, later president of the NAACP; and Charles W. Chestnut, the first black American recognized, in his own day, as a major American literary figure--the letters reflect the divisions between the movement's two great ideologues and their conflicting approaches (accommodation versus confrontation) to campaigning for the welfare of the black community.

According to historian Louis R. Harlan, rather than "a figure to ignore, an anomaly, an embarrassment," Booker T. Washington was a complex man who struggled to advance civil rights during an era of harsh and complicated opposition. He attempted to appease white leaders while fighting both white domination and militant black leaders.

By 1904, Washington was known and respected by white supporters. As founder and president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington attracted the financial and political support of wealthy white industrialists and built a powerful network of former students and associates. He perceived the Carnegie Hall Conference as a means to defend his stature as the singular voice of Black America.

Following the Carnegie Hall Conference, Du Bois reluctantly joined Washington's newly formed Committee of Twelve, a council of black leaders wishing to continue the work of the conference. Du Bois, however, soon grew tired of Washington's conservative platform and resigned from the group. He, along with William Monroe Trotter, went on to found the Niagara Movement, a progressive organization that called for full equality for African Americans, and denounced Washington as "a puppet of the whites, who thrust him into prominence because he did not challenge their wrongdoing," Harlan writes. Du Bois' departure from the Committee of Twelve marked the end of the first and last attempt by Washington and Du Bois to work together.