W.E.B. Du Bois, whose name the U.S. Department of Education mangled in a tweet purportedly celebrating Black History month, was forever on the lookout for “sinister signs in educational movements.” Such vigilance is still warranted, given Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's cynical use of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to support school choice, a policy that has been shown to exacerbate school segregation at home and abroad. Evidence shows that, all good intentions aside, schools cannot fix economic inequality, and venture philanthropy cannot address educational inequality. That was the case in Du Bois's time, and it remains true now.
Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was particularly incensed by New England philanthropists using HBCUs not only to enforce segregation at home, but also to spread the American system of segregation and sharecropping to Africa. From the 1890s through the 1940s, HBCUs were harnessed, sometimes willingly and sometimes not, to a colonial project that transformed Africans from relatively independent and equal participants in global trade networks into poorly paid and politically subjugated producers of cotton for the world market.
From the 1890s through the 1940s, HBCUs were harnessed...to a colonial project that transformed Africans from relatively independent and equal participants in global trade networks into poorly paid and politically subjugated producers of cotton for the world market.
Although HBCUs have produced a great many black doctors, PhDs and engineers, they were not initially designed to do so. Nor were they intended to provide blacks with enhanced educational choice. Rather, they specialized in "industrial education," which meant simple handicrafts and manual labor for men and domestic arts, like childcare and laundering, for women. These were also engineered to produce politically docile citizens. The demands of the newly freed for land and independence, The New York Times reported in 1866, “concerned Massachusetts quite as much as Mississippi.” Indeed, Bay State industrialists invested heavily in the South’s iron ore and timber industries, as well as in developing southern transportation systems.
The cotton industry, and its demand for cheap and compliant labor, spurred the most philanthropic interest in HBCUs. The United States' South produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton, the world’s most valuable agricultural commodity. Boston’s textile manufacturers generously supported Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, one of the oldest HBCUs. In "Up From Slavery," his autobiography, he remarked: “In the city of Boston I have rarely called upon an individual for funds [and] not been thanked for calling, usually before I could…thank the donor for the money.” He recalled receiving a letter that said, “We in Boston are constantly indebted to you for doing our work.” Rebranding segregation as a mutually beneficial choice even earned him a trip to the White House. He and Du Bois had a lifelong feud.
Washington is best known for his "Atlanta Compromise" address, delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1894, wherein he said blacks and whites should remain "separate as the fingers on a hand" socially, while uniting in industrial pursuits. By industrial pursuits, he primarily meant the cotton industry.
While Washington was giving the Atlanta address, his good friend and white benefactor, William H. Baldwin, a Boston businessman, “paced nervously” outside. Baldwin's enormous wealth bought him space on the Tuskegee board of trustees, among others, and his interests in the education of African Americans and the cotton industry were intertwined. “The Negro and the mule is the only combination so far to grow cotton,” he once said. He speculated that if, “properly educated,” blacks would “willingly fill the more menial positions and do the heavy work, at less wages, than the American white man.”
Du Bois and Washington's mutual enmity escalated when they became interested in Africa. At the same time that Du Bois was hosting pan-African congresses to protest European colonialism, British colonial officials were seeking Washington's advice as well as Tuskegee graduates to work in colonial administration. The aspirations of Africans and African Americans for political and economic independence were seen as interdependent problems, which could be managed by the transfer of America’s Jim Crow education system to West, South and East Africa.
[Du Bois] was ever on the lookout for politicians and their wealthy benefactors who used educational theory as a cover for racial discrimination. In an era when millionaires are not only driving education reform, but are being appointed to powerful positions, we would do well to heed his warning.
On January 1, 1900, three Tuskegee graduates and one faculty member were sent to Togo, a German colony, to forcefully train West Africans in growing cotton. Over the next three decades, Tuskegee graduates were instrumental in the development of colonialist cotton schemes in the Sudan, Nigeria and the Belgian Congo. British colonialists in South Africa meanwhile, adopted industrial education, which eventually formed the cornerstone of the Bantu Education system, later rejected in the Sowetan youth rebellion of 1976.
Du Bois insisted that educational reforms should be scrutinized for their underlying political implications. He was ever on the lookout for politicians and their wealthy benefactors who used educational theory as a cover for racial discrimination. In an era when millionaires are not only driving education reform, but are being appointed to powerful positions, we would do well to heed his warning.