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.
Note that Washington -- in possibly the most famous and widely distributed speech that a black person had given before Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 -- had just a few months before declared in Atlanta, to the delight of Southern segregationists who hailed him as a prophet, that "we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful." And wait for Washington's punch line: "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities."
Clearly, Morehouse was firing the opening salvo at Washington's concept of the proper way to educate a Negro, and in 1903 Du Bois would fire the second. And just as clearly, Du Bois took Washington's attack on the role of the liberal arts in Negro education personally, especially his line that "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois would signify upon Washington's comment by publishing a short story, "Of the Coming of John," which features his black protagonist paying five dollars to attend a performance of Lohengrin, Richard Wagner's famous opera, only to be removed from his seat because a white man objects to being seated next to him.
Did Lincoln Plant the Seed?
What strikes me as fascinating about Morehouse's and Du Bois' concept of a supposedly elite 10 percent of "the race" is that it accords almost exactly with the size of the Free Negro population in the 1860 census: 11 percent of the African-American community was composed of Free Negroes on the eve of the Civil War (and quite surprisingly far more of them lived in the South (258,346) than in the Northeast (155,983), but that's the subject of another column). And it was this group of freed persons to whom President Abraham Lincoln was referring when he announced, in the last speech of his life, that he advocated giving "the elective franchise" to "the very intelligent [colored man], and on those who serve our cause as soldiers," who numbered about 200,000.
If we add the number of free black men with the number of black soldiers, it's easy to see that Abraham Lincoln effectively introduced the notion of a privileged "talented tenth" within the race who would be accorded more rights than the remaining nine-tenths, the 3.95 million slaves who would really only be freed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. So perhaps we should give Lincoln the credit for inventing the concept!
Despite the narrow scope and elitism of Lincoln's proposal, how radical an idea was this in an America that had just suffered massive losses from a civil war that undeniably was fought to end black slavery? Standing on the grounds of the White House listening to the president's speech that day, April 11, 1865, was a man named John Wilkes Booth. When he heard Lincoln say that he wanted to give even some black men the right to vote, Booth was heard to remark, "That means nigger citizenship. That is the last speech he will ever make." Four days later, Booth assassinated Lincoln. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which extended to all black men the right to vote, would be ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, five years after Lincoln's death.
Even more curiously, a month after Lincoln's 1865 speech, the black Republican newspaper in New Orleans foreshadowed the concept of the Talented Tenth in an editorial it published as early as May 18, when it noted that "the [black] poor … are nine-tenths of the colored population." So it's clear that concept of the Talented Tenth had multiple authors before Du Bois publicized it in 1903.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.