“The ‘Black North’” Independent, 6 Feb. 1902, pp. 338-40.

Dublin Core


“The ‘Black North’” Independent, 6 Feb. 1902, pp. 338-40.


the "Negro Question"; DuBois; Washington; Race


“The ‘Black North’” Independent, 6 February 1902, pp. 338-40.

Mr. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois[1] has lately finished his series of advisory lectures[2] to the negroes. Just now our poor black brother is the most advised man in Christendom. First of all, he has as counselor Booker T. Washington,[3] whom God has sent to pull him out of the slough as surely as he sent Moses to bring his people to the promised land.[4] The next generation may appreciate the common sense, the piercing sagacity, the moderation of this black leader, but his race do not appreciate it now. Each man among them who has achieved any kind of an education shouts out a differing order to the struggling dumb hosts below him.

“Aim at the highest,” cries one. “Get a college education; get Greek, mathematics, logic, tho you have to earn your bread as a barber or a baker.”

“Learn a trade,” commands another.

“Go to the North.”

“Stay in the South.”

“Make friends of your old masters. To follow peace with all men is Christian and expedient.”

“Fight for your rights! Organize! Drill! Form into companies. Be ready to strike when the hour comes!"

Is it any wonder that the negro, dazed and perplexed by this multitude of counsel, staggers this way and that on his upward road? The miracle is that he goes up it at all.

White men are equally noisy concerning him. “The negro” is the one theme on which every American feels competent to pronounce a final judgment. Down to the unwashed emigrant limping on shore in his rags each one of them is ready to decide the place and future of the negro. Is he not black? Are they not white? What other authority do you want? The ignorant white finds down among his squalid mean thoughts a dislike to a dark skin—just as he may dislike a harelip or a hunchback. But he parades it as “a racial instinct,” God-given, irremovable, and because he has this puerile prejudice demands that a whole nation, noble in their high aim, their courage and their patience, shall be sentenced to perpetual defeat and ignominy. Could anything have been more ludicrous than the spasm which convulsed the country the other day when the President asked Mr. Washington to dinner?[5] Your white American will sit calmly every day while a negro shaves him, rubs his face and hair, touches his eyes and lips with his black fingers; or he will eat bread kneaded by other black fingers, or meat which they have seasoned and cooked; he will put his child into the arms of a black nurse; he will come, in a word, into the closest personal contact with the ignorant and often unclean low class of negro, and yet, when Mr. Roosevelt asks one of the foremost leaders of thought and action among Americans, a gentleman by instinct and habit, to sit down near him and be helped to the same mutton and potatoes he shrieks with dismay the Republic is in peril! Unimaginable horrors will follow this recognition of the fact that a man with a dark skin is a leader in thought or a gentleman in instinct and habit.

The most absurd explanation of this action was given by certain Southern editors who gravely assured us that as soon as the negro was admitted to the table of the white, general miscegenation[6] would follow! Nothing could stop the white woman of the South from marrying him. The white woman of the South certainly had no reason that day to thank her champion for his defense!

It is a significant fact that the negro journals were much more calm and temperate in their comments on this incident than were those of their white brethren. They were not unduly uplifted by the invitation to dinner from the President to one of their race. The fact is, the negro is less excited by the desire for social recognition than the whites imagine. This is partly due to a dignified self respect common to the upper class of colored people, and perhaps to a certain funny trait of self-esteem common to the lower class—a vanity which makes them ridiculous, perhaps, but which comforts them enormously in their desperate climb upward. It is like the conceit and self-confidence of a child which carries him over obstacles in youth, but which he outgrows, and at which he laughs when it is no longer necessary to him.

Mr. Du Bois in the papers lately finished takes his usual pessimistic view of the fortunes of his race, but his advice to them is good, except as it seems to me, when, after acknowledging that the negro can find work in the South, which he cannot find in the North, he insists that he must not for that reason remain there. “A certain sort of soul,” he says, “a certain kind of spirit finds the narrow repression, the provincialism of the South almost unbearable.”[7]

This may be true of the young educated negro who has ambitions and longings in him for—he scarcely knows what —altho Booker T. Washington and my friend the venerable Dr. Crummles and many other black men whom I am proud to call friends, who are doing steady, vigorous work for their race in the South, are apparently not tormented by any such vague discontent.

These sentimental objections to “the provincialism of the South" fade into nothingness in the face of the great fact that the negro to live must find work, and that his old masters will give him work, and his new friends in the North will not. The trades unions here shut him out. But there is not a town in the South to-day where a black mason or carpenter or blacksmith cannot find work and wages. The real difficulty there in his way is that, as a rule, he will not work steadily. Every capitalist who has operated in the Southern States will tell the same story of the negroes who would work for a week and as soon as they were paid would “lay off to rest up” for a fortnight. It is this unconquerable habit of the negro workman that has closed factories and phosphate works from Carolina to the Gulf.

On the other hand, you will scarcely find a town or village in the South that has not its industrious, shrewd, successful negro—a mechanic, a trader; an employer of other men, self-respecting and respected by his white neighbors.

The sum of the whole matter is, that both the white and black leaders of the race have fallen too much into the habit of considering it as a unit, of urging it here and there, and of prophesying de- feat or victory of it as a whole people.

The fact is that the defeat or success of the negro, as of the white, depends upon himself as an individual. He has, it is true, to contend against an absurd and cruel prejudice. But every man has to contend against some difficulty—a dull brain, or deafness, or a tendency bequeathed by his grandfathers to drink, or to lie, or to steal. Whoever he is, be sure that he has his fight to make.

The negro, almost without a fight, has gained freedom, suffrage and education—now he wants work and has difficulty in getting it, just as women had thirty years ago. They have it now.

In spite of this difficulty, I should like to show him that he can succeed, if he keeps his head, works steadily to his purpose, trusts in God, and deserves success.

I have in mind now a freed slave who came to Philadelphia in the sixties. He had only learned to read and write; he had not a dollar, nor a friend in the city. But he was honest, he had keen mother wit, unflagging capacity for work, and that fine natural courtesy in which his race so far surpasses ours. He began work as a waiter, then became a caterer; then employed other men and women and made his establishment a universal aid to housekeepers. He laid your carpets, he draped your curtains, he cooked and served your meals, he took charge of your moving and carried you from one house to the other as quietly as if you were on a magic carpet. In word and work he never was known to be slack. His business increased rapidly. He took enormous buildings into his care, his huge vans were seen in every street. When the town fell asleep in summer he went to a seaside resort and opened a great café. When he died he left a comfortable fortune to his children and an honorable name. Everybody felt that Philadelphia had lost one of her most useful and worthy citizens.

What one man has done others may do. It is a significant fact, however, that there was not an educated young negro in Philadelphia ready or willing to take the good will of this man's business or to carry it on when he died.

I have known other freed slaves in the same town who unaided made their way to comfort, even luxury, as purveyors, coal dealers, even brokers. Success waits for the black or white man who works for it. No man is the sport of any god.[8] The negro leaders do irreparable damage to their people by their incessant melancholy wails of complaint and defeat.


[1] W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American sociologist and writer who advocated for social and political advancement of African-Americans. His book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is considered a touchstone of African-American literature, and he is one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

[2] References a series of six sociological lectures by DuBois on the state of black citizens living in the North, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, published in the New York Times. The final installment, titled “The Black North,” to which Davis alludes in her own title, was published December 15, 1901, just a few months before this publication.

[3] Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an American educator and advocate for African-Americans known for founding the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in hopes to combat the disenfranchisement of African-Americans through education. He is well-known for delivering his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech which in part emphasized the pursuit of the advancement of black Americans through a vocationally oriented education that did not directly challenge Jim Crow segregation or white supremacy. This was a point with which DuBois strongly disagreed, calling for an education based in the humanities and an open defiance toward segregation. The debate over how best to educate black Americans is referenced by Davis in the subsequent lines of imagined dialogue.

[4]An allusion to the biblical figure of Moses, a prophet who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in the Book of Exodus.

[5] The President at the time of this publication was Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House upon the bestselling popularity of Washington’s second autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901). This marked an unprecedented occasion of a president honoring an African-American public figure with such an invitation, and it was met with hostility and racist criticisms from many Southern politicians and writers.

[6] Miscegenation refers to reproduction of individuals considered to racially different. It connotes racist ideals due to its frequent usage in racist rhetoric as a scare tactic meant to warn against integration.

[7] This is a direct quote from DuBois’s article “The Black North,” to which this essay is a response.

[8] An allusion to The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), which tells the story of a black family from the South facing harsh trials after migrating to the North. The work first appeared in print in a May 1901 issue of Lippincotts Monthly Magazine.


Jency Wilson


Updated 11/21/2022


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Jency Wilson, ““The ‘Black North’” Independent, 6 Feb. 1902, pp. 338-40.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed September 29, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/228.

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