W.E.B. Du Bois on Separate Black Institutions

For centuries there have been Black institutions in America (Black churches, Black schools, Black organizations) which have existed in complex relationships to white institutions and the broader white society as a whole. An early example that captures some of the dynamics is Richard Allen, the white Methodist church, and the founding of the African Methodist Episocopal (AME) church:

By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.

The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen

The question of “segregation” is complex, and it really does matter whose vantage point you view it from. When wealthy and powerful white institutions enforce segregation as a means of excluding minorities from access to those resources, segregation is an evil injustice.

But when Black people voluntarily chose to leave the “white table” in order to “build their own tables” where they would be free from the dehumanizing discrimination pressed on them in these white institutions, this kind of “segregation” is a necessity, not an evil, and creates the necessary spaces for Black people to flourish, free of unjust restrictions or the white gaze. Recent years have seen a proliferation of Black-centric organizations who have grown weary of the resistance in white churches, seminaries, and organizations. The Witness, A Black Christian Collective, The Front Porch, and The Crete Collective come immediately to mind as examples who have moved away from proximity to white evangelicalism. Some have questioned this: “If having a white church is bad, then why is it okay to have a black church?” When considering this question, it’s important to note that “segregation” must viewed from at least two angles (maybe more!) and the two are asymmetrical. Who created the separation and who is responding to the separation created? Who is creating resistance and who is responding to that resistance?

In 1935 W.E.B. Du Bois published an article in the The Journal of Negro Education titled “Does the Negro need Separate Schools?” (available on JStor here). In it, Du Bois defends the existence of separate schools, but does so with a deep awareness of the complex realities facing Black people. I would suggest that many of these factors exist today, and that Du Bois’s observations are helpful for those considering, not just separate schools, but churches, seminaries, and other organizations as well.

Here are a few choice quotes:

The question which I am discussing is: Are these separate schools and institutions needed? And the answer, to my mind, is perfectly clear. They are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education in equipment and housing, and the promotion of such extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.

There are many public school systems in the North where Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not educated; they are crucified. There are certain Northern universities where Negro students, no matter what their ability, desert, or accomplishment, cannot get fair recognition, either in classroom or on the campus, in dining halls and student activities, or in common human courtesy. It is well-known that in certain faculties of the University of Chicago, no Negro has yet received the doctorate and seldom can achieve the mastership in arts; at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Negroes are admitted but not welcomed; while in other institutions, like Princeton, they cannot even enroll.

Manifestly, no general and inflexible rule can be laid down. If public opinion is such in Montclair that Negro children can not receive decent and sympathetic education in the white schools, and no Negro teachers can be employed, there is for us no choice. We have got to accept Negro schools. Any agitation and action aimed at compelling a rich and powerful majority of the citizens to do what they will not do, is useless… the futile attempt to compel even by law a group to do what it is determined not to do, is a silly waste of money, time, and temper.

Recognizing the fact that for the vast majority of colored students in elementary, secondary, and collegiate education, there must be today separate educational institutions because of an attitude on the part of the white people which is not going materially to change in our time, our customary attitude toward these separate schools must be absolutely and definitely changed.

It is difficult to think of anything more important for the development of a people than proper training for their children; and yet I have repeatedly seen wise and loving colored parents take infinite pains to force their little children into schools where the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child, made mock of it, neglected or bullied it, and literally rendered its life a living hell Such parents want their child to ‘fight’ this thing out,–but, dear God, at what a cost! Sometimes, to be sure, the child triumphs and teaches the school community a lesson; but even in such cases, the cost may be high, and the child’s whole life turned into an effort to win cheap applause at the expense of healthy individuality.

We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit; an infinitely more capable and rounded personality by putting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting them into hells where they are ridiculed and hated.

Lack of faith in Negro enterprise leads to singular results: Negroes will fight frenziedly to prevent segregated schools; but if segregation is forced upon them by dominant white public opinion, they will suddenly lose interest and scarcely raise a finger to see that the resultant Negro schools get a fair share of the public funds so as to have adequate equipment and housing; to see that real teachers are appointed, and that they are paid as much as white teachers doing the same work. Today, when the Negro public school system gets from half to one-tenth of the amount of money spent on white schools, and is often consequently poorly run and poorly taught, colored people tacitly if not openly join with white people in assuming that Negroes cannot run Negro enterprises, and cannot educate them- selves, and that the very establishment of a Negro school means starting an inferior school… but why attribute this to a defect in the Negro race, and not to the fact that the large white colleges have from one hundred to one thousand times the funds for equipment and research that Negro colleges can command?

Conceive a Negro teaching in a Southern school the economics which he learned at the Harvard Business School! Conceive a Negro teacher of history retailing to his black students the sort of history that is taught at the University of Chicago! Imagine the history of Reconstruction being handed by a colored professor from the lips of Columbia professors to the ears of the black belt! The results of this kind of thing are often fantastic, and call for Negro history and sociology, and even physical science taught by men who understand their audience, and are not afraid of the truth.

Does the Negro need separate schools? God knows he does. But what he needs more than separate schools is a firm and unshakable belief that twelve million American Negroes have the inborn capacity to accomplish just as much as any nation of twelve million anywhere in the world ever accomplished, and that this is not because they are Negroes but because they are human.

So far, I have noted chiefly negative arguments for separate Negro institutions of learning based on the fact that in the majority of cases Negroes are not welcomed in public schools and universities nor treated as fellow human beings. But beyond this, there are certain positive reasons due to the fact that American Negroes have, because of their history, group experiences and memories, a distinct entity, whose spirit and reactions demand a certain type of education for its development.

Negroes must know the history of the Negro race in America, and this they will seldom get in white institutions. Their children ought to study textbooks like Brawley’s “Short History,” the first edition of Woodson’s “Negro in Our History,” and Cromwell, Turner and Dykes’ “Readings from Negro Authors.” Negroes who celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and the worthy, but colorless and relatively unimportant “founders” of various Negro colleges, ought not to forget the 5th of March,-that first national holiday of this country, which commemorates the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks. They ought to celebrate Negro Health Week and Negro History Week. They ought to study intelligently and from their own point of view, the slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and present economic development.

In history and the social sciences the Negro school and college has an unusual opportunity and role. It does not consist simply in trying to parallel the history of white folk with similar boasting about black and brown folk, but rather an honest evaluation of human effort and accomplishment, without color blindness, and without transforming history into a record of dynasties and prodigies.

I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate “nitwits” as a plea for segregated Negro schools and colleges. It is not. It is simply calling a spade a spade. It is saying in plain English: that a separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black in the year of salvation 1935, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick “n*****s” when they are down. I say, too, that certain studies and discipline necessary to Negroes can seldom be found in white schools.

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