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Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois led in the African American struggle for equality during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Washington advocated that African Americans concentrate on economic and social improvement, arguing that political rights would follow. He believed that if African Americans made themselves productive members of society, white America would not be able to withhold the rights that they deserved. Washington recognized the importance of black male suffrage, but he asserted that in order to claim the vote African Americans must first improve their economic positions. To promote his views he founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 to provide vocational as well as academic education to African-American students.
W.E.B. Du Bois mounted a challenge to Washington's view by the turn of the century. He argued that Washington's views encouraged white segregationists and limited opportunities for African Americans. He believed that African Americans should have the opportunity of higher education, and should fight for their civil rights, rather than waiting for those rights to be granted after economic equality had been achieved.
To examine the woman suffrage movement within the context of the Washington-Du Bois debate; to compare and contrast African-American women's views on suffrage with the views of Washington and Du Bois.
Begin by having students read the letter from W. E. B. Du Bois to Miss M. B. Marston, 11 March 1907 and the letter from Booker T. Washington to Charles Monroe Lincoln, 14 Decmber 1908. What was Du Bois's position toward women's suffrage at that time? Why? Did Washington support women's suffrage? Why or why not? How were the opinions of the two men similar? Different?
Next, ask students to read "Club Work Among Negro Women," (1895) and "The Tenth Annual Report of the Tuskegee Woman's Club" (1905). What was Margaret Murray Washington's position towards woman suffrage? What did she mean when she wrote, "Personally woman suffrage has never kept me awake at night"? What did the Department of Woman Suffrage do at Tuskegee? How was this activity similar or different from what you would expect?
Next, have students read "Talks about Women" (1910) and "Colored Women as Voters" (1912). How did Milholland make a case for woman suffrage? How did Logan argue that African-American women were particularly fit for the franchise? What were some similarities between Milholland's and Logan's perspectives?
Ask students which pieces authored by women they have read that seem to reflect Washington's philosophy toward suffrage. Which pieces reflect Du Bois's stance? Did any of the articles by women reflect both men's views to some extent?
Have students write short speeches about women's suffrage in the voice of Du Bois or Washington. Ask them which view they agree with more, and why.
For Further Exploration
To explore the views of Washington and Du Bois toward education for African Americans, see the website A Study of Black Educational Theories.
To explore the attitude of leaders of the National Woman's Party toward African-American women's suffrage, see "How Did the National Woman's Party Address the Issue of the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919-1924?" or the lesson on this project also in the Teacher's Corner.