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The Souls of Black Folk | Context


Reconstruction and Jim Crow

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (abolishing slavery and giving black men citizenship and the right to vote) are often referred to as the Civil War Amendments. They were adopted after the Civil War (1861–65) between 1865 and 1870 during the period known as Reconstruction. However, once they became law, the U.S. government did not have a clear plan for how it should incorporate newly emancipated African Americans into society and the workforce. The Freedmen's Bureau was begun in 1865 to provide relief and jobs for millions of freed slaves, but there was much confusion about leadership and responsibilities, and the organization was also plagued by corruption. The result was a constantly changing support structure with neither a sustained plan nor the committed leadership to see the mission through.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded President Abraham Lincoln to the presidency after Lincoln's assassination in 1865, took a hands-off approach regarding the federal government's involvement in these matters. He vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau bill on two occasions, and stewardship of the African American population when it was most vulnerable was thereby sacrificed for short-term goals of national economic prosperity. As a result, hundreds of thousands of rural southern black people died from starvation, neglect, and disease between 1862 and 1870.

Additionally, the lack of federal protection enabled groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to move in and use intimidation and violence to restrict the rights and privileges of African Americans after the Civil War. State and local laws throughout the South began segregating (separating) black society from white society and strongly reinforcing notions of white supremacy. These "Jim Crow" laws and "black codes" sanctioned violence against African Americans and created a system of racial discrimination that kept them out of many jobs, public venues, neighborhoods, and juries for the next 100 years. When W.E.B. Du Bois was in Tennessee as a student and schoolteacher, and then in Georgia as a professor, he experienced firsthand the demoralizing effects of segregation. Several of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk discuss these experiences.

Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise"

Booker T. Washington was the president of Tuskegee University in Alabama and a leading African American voice as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. His 1895 speech that came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise" urged black people to accept segregation and exclusion from the political arena in exchange for the promise of education, physical protection, and economic progress.

In order to be provided free basic education limited to vocational training, African Americans would concede access to a liberal arts education.

W.E.B. Du Bois was strongly opposed to much of this reasoning, as The Souls of Black Folk reveals. In the tumultuous decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Washington and Du Bois came to represent two very different sides of the argument for how to advance the place of African Americans in American society.

Du Bois and Sociology

Du Bois can be viewed as one of the founders of the discipline of sociology—the study of human society and social problems, joining the ranks of other pioneering theorists in this field such as German philosopher Karl Marx and German sociologist Max Weber.

Du Bois's work draws particular attention to the problem of institutionalized racism. In The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) he conducted detailed ethnographic field research in the city streets and looked at correlations between these findings and available census data. He was able to clearly explain the impact of racism on these communities. Du Bois called regular attention to the evils of capitalism (economic and political system where the means of production are controlled by private owners for the purpose of profit), and in 1935 he published Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880, which exposed the way segregation and exploitation were tools of profit-seeking Southern capitalists.

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