The Story of Black Wall Street #010: A Different Kind of Pragmatism

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were leading black voices in the era when Greenwood took shape. But they had starkly different views on how to organize the black economy.

Welcome to the tenth edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. For the foreseeable future the newsletter will be focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House.

When Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois visited Oklahoma during the 1910’s, they couldn’t help but be impressed. Here was a place where the majority of non-white farmers owned their own land, where dozens of all-black towns had taken root, and where wealth was blossoming in Muskogee and a newer land of promise, Tulsa. Washington admired the black-owned farms surrounding the railroad tracks that cut through the countryside. Du Bois praised the state’s “thrifty and intelligent colored populace.” Oklahoma represented the financial independence that both men sought for their race, though they had widely diverging visions for how to achieve it. 

Washington was seen as the ultimate pragmatist. Born into slavery, he went from working in a salt mine to founding one of the most prestigious colleges for African Americans, the Tuskegee Institute. The Virginia native emphasized vocational training as a tool to increase black people’s economic standing, and he viewed such training as the most urgent need of a people only one generation removed from enslavement. Intellectual pursuits and fights over social equality would have to wait for later.  “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” he said in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

The path upwards in society, in Washington’s eyes, was through entrepreneurship. In a post-Reconstruction era where blacks were being shut out of political life, the black businessperson would be the representative of the race in the public sphere. These entrepreneurs could help train and support their black neighbors, build the first seeds of black wealth, and serve as counterexamples to harmful stereotypes about black laziness and criminality. What’s striking about Washington’s writing is his unwavering belief in the free market. He insisted that American capitalism would reward black people in a way American democracy had not. For all his seeming pragmatism, it was an idealistic perspective. “Any man, regardless of color, will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well,” he wrote in his 1907 book The Negro in Business. “However humble the thing may be."

This August 1914 edition of the Tulsa Star welcomed Booker T. Washington to Oklahoma and profiled several of Greenwood’s leading entrepreneurs

Washington’s National Negro Business League became the vehicle for spreading his economic optimism. Founded in 1900, the organization connected hundreds of local groups of black entrepreneurs in cities nationwide. Each year, at an annual conference, prominent black businessmen and businesswomen would gather to trade strategies and present insights from their corners of the country. In 1914, when the conference was held in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a parade that included 500 black cowboys on horseback greeted Washington and his entourage. The Tulsa Star, which referred to Washington as the “World’s Greatest Living Negro,” released a special edition profiling dozens of the state’s entrepreneurs. Living in a society without a functioning democracy, black leaders embraced capitalism as the life raft through which they would achieve progress."If there is any place where the Negro has a chance to show his mettle it is right here in the United States,” Washington said in his Muskogee speech. 

Du Bois saw the world differently. Like Washington, he had successfully navigated white society, growing up in a free black family in Massachusetts and later studying at Harvard. But he had a much more cynical view of the likelihood that white people, who had built a country through the theft of black labor, would share their economic resources so freely. It was a different kind of pragmatism. 

Du Bois predicted that the rise of monopolies and large corporations would have a negative impact on black small business owners, who would not be able to compete given their lack of financial resources and formal training. When going to work for larger companies, these one-time entrepreneurs would have their leadership skills dismissed and be placed in subservient roles to white managers. "A Negro can to-day run a small corner grocery with considerable success,” he wrote in his own book called The Negro in Business, published in 1899. “To-morrow, however, he cannot be head of the grocery department of the department store which forces him out of business.”

W.E.B. Du Bois (left) and Booker T. Washington

Relying on market forces alone to elevate black society, then, seemed like a fool’s errand to him. Du Bois argued that the push for social equality had to evolve in lockstep with the push for economic independence. Black people had to be able to shape the laws that shaped the economy. In his famous treatise The Souls of Black Folk, he wondered:

"Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No."

While Washington encouraged free-flowing business between whites and blacks, Du Bois championed the “group economy,” a closed system in which black people established merchants, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who only served black customers. He would briefly join the socialist party in 1910, and adopt views further and further removed from the U.S. orthodoxy as he grew older. Between his demands for civil rights and his critiques of “landholding capitalists,” he was easy to paint as a radical in the white press and a foil to the more moderate Washington. "Where Washington took his race as he found it, and endeavored to lead it to better things through cooperation with the white man...Du Bois, temperamental, bitter, passionate, is the poorly-concealed foe of the white race,” a columnist wrote in the Tulsa Tribune in 1920. 

Washington died in 1915, just before a wave of race riots sparked in part by economic competition between white and black workers sank his vision of harmonious relations between the races. Greenwood was full of the model black entrepreneurs Washington believed would convince white people to treat their fellow Americans with grace and dignity, but it was still burned to the ground.

Du Bois grew even more disillusioned with America’s entrenched racism as he aged (he eventually became a member of the Communist Party and immigrated to Ghana). On a lecture tour across Oklahoma in early 1921, he spoke about how black people were being denied their Constitutional rights and needed to “unite the dark races of the world.” While Washington had preached the gospel of self-reliance, Du Bois’ rhetoric increasingly called for collective action. After the Greenwood massacre, a local Tulsa pastor would claim that Du Bois had provoked the attack by placing radical ideas in black residents’ minds, calling him “the most vicious negroman in the country.” The claim was its own assertion of power, a reminder that white people could construct a reality of their own choosing, and use both political and economic systems to bolster it. Leaders like Washington and Du Bois wrestled publicly with the conundrum every black person must mull quietly: whether to bend to this imposed reality or attempt to shatter it. 

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“Black Agitators Blamed for Riot.” Tulsa Daily World. June 6 1921. 

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Negro in Business: Report of a Social Study Made Under the Direction of Atlanta University. 1899. 

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. 

“Mistaken Negro Leadership.” Tulsa Tribune. June 6 1920. 

“Oklahoma Honored With Presence of World’s Greatest Living Negro.” Tulsa Star. Aug. 19 1914. 

“Oklahoma Makes Good to the National League.” Tulsa Star. Aug. 29 1914. 

“Review of Regional Meeting: NAACP Conference at Boley.” Black Dispatch. April 1 1921. 

“Schools in the South Worse Than They Were 10 Years Ago.” Baltimore Afro-American. June 25 1910. 

Washington, Booker T. and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Negro in the South: His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development. 1907. 

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901. 

Washington, Booker T. The Negro in Business. 1907.