Successful debates in a history classroom are a lot of work, and yet if done right they are more than worth it. One of my favorite yearly debates is “Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, or Marcus Mosiah Garvey: who offers the best strategy to overcome challenges of the early 20th Century?” Here, I will share with you a general outline on how to facilitate a successful debate and what teaching strategies I used to engage students on Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey.
This debate provides my Black students with the opportunity to question and investigate what exactly Black people should do in response to the failures that accrue after Reconstruction. After studying the development of the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, and post Great-Migration racial violence, this debate forces students to consider what strategic steps should be taken to help improve Black people’s lives.
When Frederick Douglass asked readers in his newspaper, The North Star, to offer their suggestions on what could be done to improve life for Black people. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, then only 25 years of age, wrote to him to say,
“WE SHOULD DO MORE AND TALK LESS.”
I wanted my students to consider these Black Liberators at a level of deeper nuance than I was given as a student. I have one small memory about learning about Washington and Du Bois in an A.P. U.S. History class. Washington was classically taught as the Great Accommodator, and Du Bois the bold hero.
Actually a simple Google search for lesson plans on Washington and Du Bois always puts the two against each other as if they were the only leaders during that time addressing Black people’s challenges.
There are also plenty of readings like this to account for this narrative. I would argue that this framing of an important part of Black history, takes Black activism and simplifies it, while also excluding Black Liberators like Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, and Madame CJ Walker.
By opening up the debate to also include Marcus Garvey students are provided with the opportunity to join a dialogue that’s not just about accommodation vs. confrontation. Marcus Garvey, just like Washington and Du Bois, offered a true vision for Black people on how to improve their social, economic, and political condition.
On the first day of this unit I provide students with a questionnaire. This questionnaire asks students questions like:
“Which one of these individuals would you like to interview so that you could learn more about African-American History?
- Someone who spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and Africa.
- One of the 1st African-Americans to attend an Ivy League college with mostly white students.
- Someone who knew how to overcome obstacles and be successful after being enslaved.”
Eight other questions like these are provided. Students then count up their As, Bs, and Cs, and figure out which one they have the most. This simple exercise matches students’ early opinions, beliefs, and interests with one of the Black leaders they will debate. Students hang up a small post-it with their name under the Black leader they aligned with based on the questionnaire. This becomes a grounding display for the unit.
To encourage engagement I calculate and share a percentage of students by class who are Washington, Du Bois, or Garvey. I also frequently stand in front of the display, tell, and encourage students that the day or two before the debate they are allowed to change their mind and move their post-it to under another name. It’s amazing that the day before the debate, half the students double down with their early identification and the other half change who they want to support.
It is important for educators to include Marcus Garvey to be part of any lesson or unit given on Washington and Du Bois because of his hopes for Black unity. His voice also helps me as a teacher hype up the “infighting” between all 3 leaders to improve student willingness to want to debate. Students like nothing more than a good argument in a history classroom.
After students do the questionnaire, the first introduction lesson is simply focused on their biographies. They learn that Washington was born enslaved, and worked as a janitor to help pay his school tuition, Du Bois was from Massachuttes and was the first Black man to receive a PhD from from Harvard, and finally that Garvey was from Jamaica and had a business known as the Black Star Line. At the end of this lesson I have students make predictions on who was the “first” Black man to earn a lunch invitation to the White House. Most students wrongly guessed Du Bois because of his Harvard attendance.
The next few days students read primary sources from each of the leaders. We then spend one day on each of Washington’s, Du Bois’s, and Garvey’s “programme:” Tuskegee Institute, NAACP, and U.N.I.A respectively. This provides students with enough background knowledge to truly get into the heart of the arguments between the men.
What’s great about this is that they know Washington and Du Bois don’t get along from their primary source deep dive of this source, but they do not know who Garvey will back up and support.
Before I had students read these two incredible primary sources “Garvey Must Go” and “A Barefaced Colored Leader,” I had students talk about what it means to call someone a “turkey,” which they frequently do. Students share what being a “turkey” means and make comparisons to Du Bois criticizing what he stated as, “Mr. Washington distinctly [asking] that black people give up.” They are shocked to find that Garvey calls Du Bois “brazen” and “barefaced,” and that some Black leaders wrote to the Attorney General calling Du Bois a “menace.” This focus on the name calling and asking students to provide commentary on whether or not the name calling is warranted meets ninth grade students on their cognitive level on arguments and disagreements.
Lastly, what I love about this debate is how students can make connections between Washington’s, Du Bois’s, and Garvey’s beliefs to Black people and their struggles and aspirations today.
Students agree that a traditional 4 year college is not realistic for all students. Therefore, a trade school, similar to the Tuskegee Institute, is a realistic option. Plus, I remind students that Madame CJ Walker, who many Black students admire, personally connected with Washington for support for her entrepreneurship.
Others argue that Du Bois is the only one truly challenging Black people’s political condition through his work with the NAACP and the Niagara Movement and that in light of success in the court with Ahmaud Arbery, legal action provides the best results.
Yet, also true, some argue that without Garvey’s commitment to racial pride, there would be no Malcolm X, Black Panther Party, and that his call for Pan-Africanism is why we see the Pan-African Flag frequently as a symbol of liberation at Juneteenth Celebrations.
On the final day of debate there is a different winner in each class proving to me that not only each of these leaders offered authentic visions for Black liberation, but that my students had thoughtful diversity as they considered the strategies and application to their own lives. They are all a part of the Black liberation movement, history and resonate in the present.
As James Baldwin chided, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.”