To be black in early-twentieth-century America was by any measure to live a life of deprivation and oppression. Black Americans were poorer, hungrier, and less educated than their white countrymen were, and the black population in the South was victimized by Jim Crow, a wide-ranging system of legalized oppression that denied blacks the right to vote and enforced discrimination in housing, education, transportation, and employment. In addition, the oppressive system, which white southerners had constructed late in the nineteenth century, was made up of countless smaller indignities, which were no less humiliating. If it was demoralizing to be denied the vote in a country that prided itself on its love of democracy, then it was no doubt equally painful to be forced to take the oath on a special "colored" Bible in a southern courtroom. Separation and oppression sometimes took imaginative forms, as in New Orleans, which adopted a law segregating black from white prostitutes. Moreover, an unwritten code of racial deference made additional demands on black citizens, like the custom that forbade a black man in a car from passing a white driver, even if the latter was riding in a wagon.
Emerging from the miasma of prejudice and oppression, African American thought at the dawn of the century consisted of two distinct streams. The views of two men, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both of whom would someday occupy prominent places in the black pantheon, pointed the struggle in different directions. For Washington, born and bred in the rural South, the guiding idea was vocational education, which emphasized practical training, especially cultivation of the soil. In Washington's mind, this constituted the most effective path to advancement. Moreover, in a period when the accumulation of wealth had achieved an almost sanctified character in the United States, Washington emphasized hard work and thrift.
Had he stopped there, he might have been remembered as a modest advocate of black self-help. But for all his apparent mild-manneredness, he was destined to become a controversial figure in the African American community. Along with his call for education and hard work, in the short term, he explicitly ruled out for blacks what white America feared most of all: social equality between the races.
For white Americans in 1900, the term social equality was in truth a euphemism for interracial social contact, which might lead to interracial sex and miscegenation. Those possibilities terrified mainstream America, and Washington's clear rejection of such aims was reassuring. In his most-celebrated speech, he asserted in 1895, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Thus, Washington's means and ends were congenial to influential segments of white America, which believed that black uplift was not necessarily a bad thing — so long as it was narrowly circumscribed.