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  • A Du Boisian Proposal for Persistently White Colleges
  • Lisa Heldke


In a 1933 speech titled "The Field and Function of the Negro College," W. E. B. Du Bois calls for his audience at Fisk University to develop "the sort of Negro university which will emancipate not simply the black folk of the United States, but those white folk who in their effort to suppress Negroes have killed their own culture—men who in their desperate effort to replace equality with caste and to build inordinate wealth on a foundation of abject poverty have succeeded in killing democracy, art, and religion" (Du Bois 1975, 99).

Du Bois's call rests upon the view that education can actively contribute to the creation of a more just society. Specifically, African American education, if undertaken in the right way, can challenge racism both through its direct impact on Black students and through its indirect effects on racist whites. Such positive effects could result even though public and private schools were legally segregated at the time—even though, in many parts of the country, all-Black schools were absolutely the only educational institutions open to Blacks.1 Despite the monstrous reasons that led to the existence of all-Black colleges, despite their involuntary nature, Du Bois argued that these colleges could put their racial homogeneity to work for the liberation of Black people. Du Bois utilized a version of identity politics to redefine the segregated space of the Black college as a staging ground for Black liberation.

Writing in 1960, near the end of his life, Du Bois expressed amazement at the progress Blacks had made in desegregating schools, and predicted that the number of "schools which do not discriminate against colored people ... is going to increase slowly in the present, but rapidly in the future until long before the year 2000, there will be no school segregation on the basis of race" (152). Wary of the price desegregation might exact on Black culture and life, Du Bois nonetheless felt cautiously optimistic that it would at least be achieved.2

During the course of his life, both at times of segregation and at times and in places in which integration was supposedly taking place, Du Bois argued that [End Page 224] all-Black educational contexts were vitally important for empowering African Americans and for challenging racist oppression. Where such contexts were the only educational opportunities available to Blacks, they should be celebrated and exploited to their fullest. Where they did not exist, they should be created, so that Black students would still have the opportunity to learn in a context in which their Blackness was explicitly attended to, valued, and educated.

The historically white institutions of which he wrote stood, almost without exception, as obstacles to that education. If Du Bois saw Black colleges as nurturing the seeds of social transformation, he saw white colleges as tending the crop of white racism.

Forty years after the death of Du Bois, anti-Black racism has changed its shape, but it persists nevertheless. Indeed, evidence suggests that many of the advances Du Bois identified at the end of his life have actually eroded in the last twenty years. And while the legal segregation of Jim Crow has ended, segregation still exists in de facto forms, in arenas ranging from housing and employment to religion and private clubs. His optimism even about the elimination of school segregation by the year 2000 was sadly unwarranted. Schools and colleges, public and private, are still often racially unmixed. Indeed, were he speaking to a historically Black college today, Du Bois would likely repeat his 1933 statement to Fisk: "you are teaching Negroes.... You are teaching American Negroes in 1933, and they are the subjects of a caste system in the Republic of the United States of America and their life problem is primarily the problem of this caste. Upon these foundations, therefore, your university must start and build" (92). Given the depth and persistence of anti-Black racism in the United States, it could surely be argued that Black colleges should work to preserve their Blackness, and to follow the very advice he gave those institutions during the height of...


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