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The Souls of Black Folk

An account of the conditions of African Americans after the end of slavery

By W.E.B. Du Bois
12-minute read
Audio available
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk (1903) details the conditions of African Americans in the years after the end of slavery. By examining issues such as education, economic opportunities, and the interaction between Black and White Americans, Du Bois highlights the challenging legacy of slavery and the disempowering effects of the racism and segregation that followed.

  • People interested in African American history
  • Those who want to better understand race relations in America
  • People interested in sociology

W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, author, and civil rights activist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, Du Bois was noted for using social science to study the lives of African Americans. He also cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited its magazine, The Crisis, for 24 years. 

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The Souls of Black Folk

An account of the conditions of African Americans after the end of slavery

By W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Synopsis

The Souls of Black Folk (1903) details the conditions of African Americans in the years after the end of slavery. By examining issues such as education, economic opportunities, and the interaction between Black and White Americans, Du Bois highlights the challenging legacy of slavery and the disempowering effects of the racism and segregation that followed.

Key idea 1 of 7

The Freedmen’s Bureau was necessary to integrate African Americans, but its work was cut short. 

Picture this scenario: A group of people have to run a marathon, but some of them are severely unprepared. They don’t know the rules, they haven’t been trained or given the right equipment, and they’re forced to start off much later than their counterparts. 

As you can imagine, the disadvantaged runners have no chance of really competing with the rest of the field. 

When 250 years of slavery in the United States ended in 1865, the prospects of 4 million newly free African Americans were equally dim. And for this reason, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created to support and empower the population.

The key message here is: The Freedmen’s Bureau was necessary to integrate African Americans, but its work was cut short. 

Having known nothing but slavery, African Americans in the South had little, if any, education and had never worked for pay. Furthermore, they lived side by side with many who would have preferred the continuation of slavery. The Freedmen’s Bureau took on the work of creating an education system and making sure that African Americans were given fair work contracts and conditions. It also represented African Americans in courts to prevent any discrimination.

Despite the necessity of this work, many felt that it was unconstitutional for the Freedmen’s Bureau to act on behalf of African Americans. Arguments against the bureau included the idea that it prioritized one race over another and interfered with the governing power of individual states. 

It might seem surprising, but this opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau paved the way to voting rights for the Black population. 

Leaving Black Americans powerless and at the mercy of hostile neighbors and leaders in the South was not an option. The only feasible alternative was to give them the power to vote and, hopefully, elect leaders who would look out for their interests.

While granting voting rights to African Americans was a significant milestone, W.E.B. Du Bois believed that it had a negative impact on the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many started to see the bureau’s work as temporary, and the power to vote as the solution to the complex challenges faced by African Americans. But according to Du Bois, this wasn’t the case.

Du Bois believed that a permanent and well-run Freedmen’s Bureau would have successfully integrated African Americans socially, economically, and politically. This work was far from done when the bureau was dissolved in 1869. Black people may have been given the vote, but they were also left vulnerable and with the difficult task of lifting themselves up in a society that was still heavily against them.

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