DuBois’ emphasis on a classical education was in direct conflict with the book’s editor and fellow essayist Booker T. Washington, who in his “Industrial Education for the Negro,” further articulated what he had been preaching for years, that the sons and daughters of former slaves would be better served with an industrial education.
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” wrote Du Bois, a graduate of both Fisk University and Harvard University. “The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
When Du Bois wrote his 1903 essay, the same year that 84 Blacks had been lynched, the thought of higher education was not attainable for many Black people.
In 1900, according to the US Census, 90% of African Americans still lived in the South. More than half of all Black men and 35% of Black women reported their occupation as a farmer or farm laborer. The rest were confined to unskilled labor and service jobs. Their children, even at very young ages, were unlikely to have been in school, according to the census.
According to a report by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, by 1900 only about 2,000 Blacks had earned any kind of higher education degree.
Today, more than a century after DuBois popularized the concept of the Talented Tenth, scholars and supposed members of the group, are still debating its meaning.
Lawrence Carter, the Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, said that while “The Talented Tenth,” has never been explicitly talked about during his 43 years at Morehouse College, it is obviously implied that students there are expected to be leaders.
“HBCUs have always had high expectations of its students and it is in that context that you must understand the Talented Tenth,” Carter said. “I don’t think anyone emphasized this more than Morehouse, but on the first day, we tell our students, seek the terminal degree in your field. Go as far as you can go.”
Jared Sawyer, a senior religion major at Morehouse College, said he is conflicted by the theory because while Du Bois, “addresses the need for intellectualism in Black education,” the scholar failed to consider or predict the inherent problems and inequities of the educational system.
“The Talented Tenth has a place as a concept, that leads us to equity, if it is redefined to be more inclusive and diverse,” Sawyer said. “Now, it is not inclusive enough to speak to the needs of the career-oriented intellectuals, who don’t want to be doctors or lawyers, that are being produced out of our HBCUs and PWIs.”
While DuBois is universally credited with the Talented Tenth, Carter, who is also a tenured professor of religion and Morehouse’s archivist and curator, said that the concept actually dates back to at least seven years prior and has roots at Morehouse.
Carter said Henry Lyman Morehouse, an early benefactor for what was then the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, marveled at how the school had started to turn out leaders in the mode of the college’s founder William Jefferson White, the mixed-race son of a former slave who became a crusading journalist, Baptist minister and advocate for improving the race through education.
In an 1896 essay, Morehouse wrote: “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man. An ordinary education may answer for the nine men of mediocrity; but if this is all we offer the talented tenth man, we make a prodigious mistake.”
“Morehouse’s essay had a lot to do with the visibility of the college’s graduates, who were becoming proven leaders in trying to level the playing field between the races,” Carter said.
Over the years, the concept has been labeled by some as elitist, facts that Henry Lyman Morehouse and Du Bois even acknowledged.
“Excellence is not democratic,” Carter said. “If you are going to emphasize excellence, it cannot be achieved by having people vote on it. The hurdle is not movable, you either can jump it or you can’t.”
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2018 the college enrollment rates among 18- to 24-year-olds Black students increased from 31 to 37 percent.
That breaks down to about 2.1 million Black students attending American universities. And according to data, more than 228,000 of them are attending HBCUs - about 10%.