Who Really Invented the ‘Talented Tenth’?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Why you'd be wrong if you said W.E.B. Du Bois.

Henry Lyman Morehouse; W.E.B. Du Bois (Taken by Carl Van Vechten in NYC, 1946, Library of Congress)
Henry Lyman Morehouse; W.E.B. Du Bois (Taken by Carl Van Vechten in NYC, 1946, Library of Congress)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 19: Who originated the concept of the “Talented Tenth” black leadership class?

Just about everybody who knows anything about black history and/or Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois knows that one of the most important concepts of the many that he defined was “the Talented Tenth.” Many of us even committed to memory the first two sentences of perhaps his most famous essay, published in 1903 in a book called The Negro Problem, and edited by Du Bois’s nemesis, Booker T. Washington: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

These sentences were effectively a throw-down against Washington’s strident advocacy of industrial training as the ideal curriculum for the daughters and sons for the former slaves, rather than a classical liberal arts education, the sort of education that Du Bois had received at Fisk and then at Harvard. So, for Du Bois, how Negroes should be educated, and Washington’s position about it, was quite personal.

Well, if you guessed that W.E.B. Du Bois was the author of the concept of “the Talented Tenth,” you would be wrong! As my colleague Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first noted in her book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880 – 1920, the term was actually invented by a white man, Henry Lyman Morehouse (the man for whom the great Morehouse College was named),  seven years before Du Bois popularized it.  In an essay by that very title first published in April 1896 in the Independent magazine, Morehouse coined the term and defined it in this way: “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man. An ordinary education may answer for the nine men of mediocrity; but if this is all we offer the talented tenth man, we make a prodigious mistake.” Why? Because, Morehouse continues, “The tenth man, with superior natural endowments, symmetrically trained and highly developed, may become a mightier influence, a greater inspiration to others than all the other nine, or nine times nine like them.” 

Obviously concerned that his argument would appear to be elitist, which it nakedly and unapologetically was — like Du Bois’ elaboration of it seven years later — Morehouse was quick to add that he was not unmindful of the importance of the contributions of the other so-called “nine-tenths”: “Without disparagement of faithful men of moderate abilities, it may be said that in all ages the mighty impulses that have propelled a people onward in their progressive career, have proceeded from a few gifted souls … men of thoroughly disciplined minds, of sharpened perceptive faculties, trained to analyze and to generalize; men of well-balanced judgments and power of clear and forceful statement.” The talented tenth man, Morehouse concludes, “is an uncrowned king in his sphere.” 

A Battle Rooted in “Compromise”

What a powerful, if quite idealistic, brief for a black liberal arts education Morehouse gave. It is no accident that he published this essay just a few months after Booker T. Washington’s famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech. That address was delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta the previous September, at the height of the Jim Crow era, less than a year before the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision was handed down on May 18, 1896, cementing “separate but equal” as the law of the land (until that decision was overturned by the court in Brown v. Board in 1954). In this speech, which was widely heralded throughout the country and which was called the “Atlanta Compromise” because Du Bois mockingly dubbed it as such, Washington stressed, among other things, the importance of industrial or vocational curricula over a college education for black people.

Morehouse, without naming Washington, was taking Washington’s position head on: “I repeat that not to make proper provision for the high education of the talented tenth man of the colored people is a prodigious mistake. It is to dwarf the tree that has in it the potency of a grand oak. Industrial education is good for the nine; the common English branches are good for the nine; but that tenth man [like Du Bois, whom he doesn’t name but of whom he is clearly thinking, and unlike Washington, who he hints is actually a prime example of those “self-made men, so-called, whose best powers were evoked by rare opportunities”] ought to have the best opportunities for making the most of himself for humanity and for God.”