The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later

By Dolan Hubbard | Go to book overview

Alexandra, Tennessee
Dusk and Dawn of the Rural Veil
Reavis L. Mitchell, Jr.

Of Alexandria at the end of the nineteenth century, W. E. B. Du Bois asked, “How shall men measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How harda thing is life to the lowly, andyet how human andreal! Andall this life and love and strife and failure, —is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?”1

His sadly musing questions came in response to his return to Alexandria's African American settlement in 1897, ten years after he had been engaged as the teacher of the seasonal “colored school” in rural DeKalb County, Tennessee. His pilgrimage revealedbittersweet changes in Alexandria's white agrarian community and its sister settlement of black farmers.

When Du Bois spent the hot summers of 1886 and 1887 teaching rural black youngsters, he was an undergraduate student at Nashville's Fisk University. Being young, idealistic, and self-confident (“Fisk men thought that Tennessee—beyondthe Veil—was theirs alone” [46]), his unwavering belief in higher education for future economic improvement of all African Americans, whether urban or agrarian, reflected the spirit of optimism in African Americans, who were confident they were participants in the surrounding white-shaped world. And that spirit of optimism was justified as post-Reconstruction Tennessee, historically more liberal than her Deep South sister states, had embraced the pro-industry “New South” gospel espoused since the mid-1870s by Henry Grady (1850–1889), editor of the

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1
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: Norton, 1999), 53–54. Subsequent references to this work appear as page citations in the text. The book's fourth chapter, “Of the Meaning of Progress, was first publishedas an essay entitled “A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South, in Atlantic Monthly 83, no. 495 (January 1899): 99–105.

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