The chapter begins with a poem by the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, which includes the lines: “All are rising— / the black and white together.” Du Bois describes the city of Atlanta, lying “gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia.” He invokes the haunting legacy of slavery and the Civil War, yet claims that the people of Atlanta are “turned resolutely toward the future.” Du Bois argues that “a fearful wilderness” surrounded Atlanta after the war, a wilderness caused by the combination of poverty, serfdom, crime and punishment, and most of all, “the Veil of Race.”
Du Bois describes the past as inescapably part of the present. Even as the people of Atlanta dream of better things to come, they cannot escape the legacy of slavery, which manifests in issues such as crime and poverty in the present. Indeed, Du Bois’ use of the word “crimson” to describe the Georgia soil hints at the violence (and bloodshed) of slavery, which remains embedded as a permanent feature of the Southern landscape.
Du Bois argues that hard work and prosperity are the correct path to a better future for Atlanta (and indeed for all the South). However, there is a danger of mistaking money as the end goal, rather than simply the means of securing a better future. Du Bois perceives that at the time he is writing, many Southerners are falling victim to an obsession with money. Furthermore, wealth is seen as the goal of politics and solution to every social problem. Du Bois expresses concern that this obsession is spreading to the black community. The older leaders of the African American community are making way for the younger generation, who tend to be affluent property owners.
Du Bois’ concerns about the role of greed in politics and society echoes many concerns that remain in the present. Note that he is particularly concerned with how the desire for wealth is affecting the African-American community, and particularly the black leaders who are the first generation of black people in the South to have a chance at achieving prosperity. Du Bois identifies the moment he is writing as pivotal in avoiding the greed that afflicts white men.
Du Bois draws a parallel between the “death” of two figures: the honest, deferential slave, and the “Southern gentleman.” He argues that the obsession with money is behind the disappearance of both. Black people’s prizing of faith and knowledge is in danger of being overtaken by a fixation with wealth.
While Du Bois hardly laments the disappearance of these slavery-era Southern figures, he expresses concern that the moral vacuum and uncertainty created by Emancipation may be filled by an obsession with money.
Du Bois describes a cluster of beautiful, stately buildings: Atlanta University. This is where he lives, and where students study the classics and learn “old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth.” Du Bois argues that at no university, not even Oxford or Yale, do students strive so passionately as they do at Atlanta University. He describes the students learning of a “future fuller than the past.” He argues that the founders of Atlanta and other black universities “made their mistakes,” but that the decision to found universities was undoubtedly correct, as this is the best way of laying the foundation for a better future.
For Du Bois, hope for the future lies in the young, intelligent, hard-working black people who have a chance to receive a classical education at university. He views education as crucial because it allows people to fully understand the reality of the past and present while also instilling moral values that will lay the foundation for a fair and prosperous future.
Du Bois argues that the biggest mistake made by the founders of Atlanta University was thinking that progress would come quickly. They also made the error of “forgetting” about the distribution of talent, which means that not every young person will succeed at university; “to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as… making the scholar a blacksmith.” Du Bois also argues that the purpose of universities is not just to train students for professional life, but also to be an “organ of adjustment” that helps society exist in a harmonious, civil way.
Du Bois treads a careful line between what he describes as the naïve idealism of the Atlanta University founders and the arguments made by Booker T. Washington (and others) that black people do not need more than a technical education. In this passage, he clearly demonstrates that just because he advocates the existence of higher education opportunities for black people, that doesn’t mean all black people should enroll in these institutions.
Du Bois claims that the South is especially in need of universities at the moment, as the culture of balanced, critical thought was ruined by slavery. He argues that support for the development of black universities should run parallel to support for white Southern universities. According to Du Bois, universities teach “Patience, Humility, Manners, and Taste.” He repeats the sentiment that laborers should be taught trades and technical skills, whereas “thinkers” should be taught to “think.” At the same time, universities do not operate in a vacuum, and their value is not simply instrumental; rather, they have a crucial role within society of promoting righteousness and truth.
Later black intellectuals and leaders argue that Du Bois’ attitude toward university contains overtones of elitism. He suggests that traditional higher education makes people more moral, an argument that some reject as classist. At the same time, Du Bois’ own work highlights the importance of education in the advancement of social justice. By conducting sociological and historical analysis of the black community, Du Bois significantly influenced the civil rights movement.