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Is Boston University a Crossroads for Black Intellectuals/W.E.B. DuBois’s “Talented Tenth*?”

The prior feature story showed a photo of Dr. Gail Kemp beside a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is one of Boston University’s most well-known African American alumni. In fact, a number of Black ministers set the goal of following in Dr. King’s educational footsteps. This starts with attending a historically Black college/university (HBCU) in the U.S. South, such as Morehouse College. The next stage of the journey entails moving to the North for graduate study, culminating in a Ph.D. from Boston University or other northern universities. Areas of study included theology, history, sociology, law, etc. Why this particular route? Its roots are in the American Negro’s experience of segregation and restricted opportunities. Compulsory Ignorance laws for Blacks (1740-1865) were followed by Compulsory Education laws, enacted by individual states starting in the 1880’s. By 1918, every state had school attendance laws ( (Massachusetts is noteworthy for its early commitment to public education. For example, it founded the oldest school in the country in 1635, Boston Latin School. Then, as both a colony and a state, Massachusetts enacted the first compulsory education laws in 1647 and 1852, respectively.) 

In part, compulsory education laws were enacted to address the 19th century achievement gap between whites and blacks.  Contrary to some stereotypes, newly emancipated slaves and their descendants used their freedom to pursue education.  In fact, the literacy rates among so-called American Negroes in the closing decades of the 19th century exceeded the literacy rates among some whites. In the South, 56.4% of whites were literate, per 1860s data. Among American Negroes, literacy increased from 20% in 1850 to nearly 80% in 1890. (See footnote #13, p.290 in the document at the following site— Despite improved literacy, segregation continued to set up barriers to education for American Negroes/Blacks. For Blacks to earn graduate degrees, they almost had to go “up North.” In a sense, this became the “educational ‘underground railroad’” for Blacks wanting to pursue academics—a feature of DuBois’s “Talented Tenth*.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a current model for this educational journey. However, he was not the first. (To be continued


WEB Dubois

*W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) DuBois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) most famously used this term in his book, Souls of Black Folk (1903). The “Talented Tenth” referred to the percentage of American Negroes/Blacks to become leaders through higher education and intellectual pursuits. He offered this as a supplement to the then growing movement to train Blacks to fill industrialized jobs. Booker T. Washington was the most famous spokesman for this training movement.

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