What is Respect? Ask Washington and Du Bois

Respect is something adolescents think a lot about After all, there are great rewards to being respected:  more friends, love from parents, favors from teachers and acceptance from society. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

American history is replete with leaders who also recognized the rewards of being respected and did everything possible to get it.  Nowhere is this pursuit better seen than in the years after the Civil War when African-Americans, freed from the bounds of slavery, had to pursue respect under the most difficult of conditions– Jim Crow.

Let’s see if we can figure out how to harness the knowledge and interest students already have about respect and parlay that into a deeper understanding of two seminal figures of Jim Crow America– Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

Start class with a few personal questions:

How can you tell if someone respects him/herself?

Is self-respect more important than respect from others?

Slow down the discussion.  Spend time unpacking the definition of respect.  I bet they’ll have plenty to say.

Then set the scene:  The Civil War is over. African-Americans are free. Yet they still remained imprisoned by segregationist laws and voting barriers.

Introduce the leaders…

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was a former slave educated at Hampton Institute in Virginia.  Washington wrote passionately about the direction African-Americans should take to gain respect in society in his famous Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895.

In it, he argues for what at the time was a very controversial position– that the best way for African-Americans to get respect was not to demand civil rights. Instead, they must actively participate in society and become economic producers.

W.E.B Dubois

On the other extreme is W.E.B DuBois, civil rights activist and one of the founders of the NAACP. In his famous Niagara Movement Speech of 1905 DuBois argues vehemently against any sort of  capitulation to white society and promotes instead the vigorous pursuit of voting rights, education and an end to discrimination in public accommodations.

Distribute the primary sources along with this venn diagram.  Pose the supporting question: What are Washington and DuBois’ definitions of respect?  How are they the same?  How are they different?

Then, roll out a Big Question that forces students to take a position during a discussion:

Which of the two leaders has a more honorable definition of respect and why?

Of course the word honorable is open to all sorts of interpretations, and these should come out during the discussion. Share at the outset that this discussion may just end with more confusion than when it first started! Yet, with the confusion will come a sophisticated understanding of respect and how to go about getting it.

Consider the soil you have cultivated here. Students have personalized a definition of respect and then investigated the views of two preeminent African-American activists who have strong opinions about the topic. With their own opinions in hand, students can pit their own personal definition of respect revealed at the beginning of the lesson with the definitions emerging from the primary sources. They have a motivation to take the primary sources seriously and great opportunities to share their own ideas.

Not only that, but now they can extend their understanding of respect and apply it backwards to figures like Washington, Susan B. Anthony and Lincoln and forwards to Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Samuel Gompers and so many other men and women whose own journeys to get respect changed American history.

And it all starts by asking students what they think.

Other posts you may like connected to US history…

Essential questions and the Power of Storytelling

Let’s Imagine what a course organized by essential questions might look like…

“Teacher! Help!! I can’t answer the Question!”

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