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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
Text 2. Standard Oil
Text 3. The Octopus in the West
Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
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Text 12. Women and Power

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Reading Guide
Mary Church Terrell
Booker T. Washington
W. E. B. DuBois
African American Strategies
- Mary Church Terrell, "The Progress of Colored Women," address, 1898, excerpts
- Booker T. Washington, Letter to the Birmingham [Ala.] Age-Herald, 24 Nov. 1902
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Letter to Oswald Garrison Villard, 24 March 1905
- The Niagara Movement, Declaration of Principles, 1905

As Pullman workers fought for decent wages and Populists demanded railroad regulation, African Americans looked for basic rights. They were not untouched by the coalescence of corporate and political power that was reshaping American life, as the Populist alliance of Southern black and white farmers indicates. Nonetheless, their real challenge was not so much to organize against the octopus but to find a way to participate in American democracy.

The two most prominent black spokesmen of the day offered two different paths to power. Booker T. Washington urged blacks to reject political action in favor of hard work and racial uplift. To complement that strategy, he encouraged white employers, as in his Atlanta Exposition speech, to "cast down their buckets among my people," where they would find not workers of "foreign birth and strange tongue" but native-born Americans who would toil "without strikes and labour wars." W. E. B. Du Bois, on the other hand, agitated for direct political action. The two perspectives are clearly articulated in the letters offered here. In addition, we provide the Niagara Movement's Declaration of Principles, the denunciation of America's mistreatment of its black citizens that emerged from a meeting of thirty black leaders organized by Du Bois and held in Niagara Falls, Canada. Its statement on "Employers and Labor Unions" sketches the plight of black workers in the emerging capitalist economy.

Neither Washington's strategy of accommodation nor Du Bois's of confrontation could halt the steady disfranchisement of black men. The waning of their political power placed new emphasis on the political culture black women had created through work in churches, civic groups, and aid societies. African American women, eschewing overt political motives and drawing upon the progressive rhetoric of the day, became brokers between white political power and the black community. The excerpt from Mary Church Terrell's address before the National Women's Suffrage Association suggests how successful they were in this role. Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. An ardent advocate of feminism and civil rights, she was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. She died in 1954. 13 pages.

For additional resources on African Americans and politics during this period, visit the POLITICS section of the toolbox "The Making of African American Identity: 1865-1917."

Discussion questions
  1. In what ways are the achievements Terrell describes political?
  2. How do they intersect with the progressive agenda of the era?
  3. Why does she place such strong emphasis on home life?
  4. In what way does Washington undermine his own argument?
  5. Why does he call attention to revised Southern state constitutions?
  6. Both Washington and DuBois argue that they are acting of behalf of nine million Negroes. How does each characterize their plight, and what are the implications of the different characterizations?
  7. How do the Niagara Principles challenge Washington's position?
  8. Compare Washington's interpretation of conditions in the South with that of the Movement.
  9. Compare the Niagara Principles with the Omaha Platform. What are the similarities and differences among their purposes, issues, and rhetoric?

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Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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