Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois & The Origination of “The Talented Tenth”

Civil Rights Activist, Educator, Journalist (1868–1963)

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most important African-American activists during the first half of the 20th century. He co-founded the NAACP and supported Pan-Africanism. A scholar and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In 1895, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. 

Du Bois wrote extensively and was the best known spokesperson for African-American rights during the first half of the 20th century. He co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Du Bois died in Ghana in 1963.

Du Bois’ Unprecedented Accomplishment

Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895, and went on to enroll as a doctoral student at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (now Humboldt-Universität). (He would be awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Humboldt decades later, in 1958.)

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Origination of “The Talented Tenth”

The phrase “talented tenth” originated in 1896 among Northern white liberals, specifically the American Baptist Home Mission Society, a Christian missionary society strongly supported by John D. Rockefeller. They had the goal of establishing black colleges in the Southto train black teachers and elites.

Du Bois used the term “the talented tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. He strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education to be able to reach their full potential, rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington and some white philanthropists. He saw classical education as the basis for what, in the 20th century, would be known as public intellectuals:

Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, the skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.[2]

In his later life, Du Bois came to believe that leadership could arise on many levels, and grassroots efforts were also important to social change. His stepson David Du Bois tried to publicize those views, writing in 1972: “Dr. Du Bois’ conviction that it’s those who suffered most and have the least to lose that we should look to for our steadfast, dependable and uncompromising leadership.”[3]

Du Bois writes in his Talented Tenth essay that

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.

Later in Dusk of Dawn, a collection of his writings, Du Bois redefines this notion, acknowledging contributions by other men. He writes that “my own panacea of an earlier day was a flight of class from mass through the development of the Talented Tenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character, not in its wealth.”