Aristocrats of Color in the NAACP
Early NAACP organizer WEB DuBois was descended from African, Dutch and French ancestry, and an early example of affirmative action as Northern white liberals had paid for his education. Considering himself well-born and disdaining work, he said “I cordially despised the poor Irish and South Germans who slaved in the mills, and annexed the rich and well-to-do as my natural companions.” Booker T. Washington is remembered for encouraging black people to gain respect through work hard and earning it; DuBois counseled racial agitation and confrontation to demand respect from others.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Aristocrats of Color in the NAACP:
“The role of aristocrats of color in the affairs of the NAACP was sufficient to allow some critics, especially some identified with Washington . . . to characterize it as a self-serving, elitist organization. The Bookerite “Atlanta Independent” continually heaped ridicule on WEB DuBois and the NAACP, which it characterized as Dubois’s “exclusive bunch.”
Hubert H. Harrison, a Virgin Islander prominent in Harlem in the 1920’s, was credited with slurring the NAACP as the “National Association for the Advancement of Certain People”; but the idea was present much earlier in criticisms made by other blacks.
Calvin Chase’s “Washington Bee” was for a time a bitter critic of the NAACP and its District branch. “Any attempt,” the Bee warned the local branch in 1914, “to establish a Negro aristocracy to the disadvantage and embarrassment of the common people will be promptly exposed and condemned.” Later the newspaper cited the NAACP as proof of its oft-repeated charge that there was “as much color prejudice among certain classes of colored people” as there was “among certain classes of whites.”
According to the Bee, Negroes who flocked to organizations like the NAACP, whether because of “color prejudice” or “caste of color,” did so primarily because of a desire to remove barriers to their own personal advancement and comfort. Only when personally affected was the upper-“caste” black likely to lodge protests and leads crusades. At least some aristocrats of color viewed admission to the NAACP as by “invitation only,” in much the same way that one gained entry into the Booklovers [clubs].
[The] black leadership of the NAACP tended to be more representative of socially prominent “old families” who viewed themselves as heirs to the Abolitionist tradition and who opposed Washington’s accommodationist approach. [Pan-African Movement] Marcus Garvey, a native of Jamaica and popular leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association . . . characterized DuBois as a ‘white man Negro” who associated only with whites and “upper ten Negroes” while ignoring the black masses.
DuBois, he thundered, worshipped a “bastard aristocracy” . . . and asked, “where did he get his aristocracy from?” and then proceeded to explain that DuBois “just got it into his head that he should be an aristocrat and ever since that time has been keeping his beard as an aristocrat.” Thunderous applause greeted Garvey’s reference to DuBois as a Negro leader who tried to “be everything else but a Negro.”
(Aristocrats of Color, The Black Elite, Willard C. Gatewood, Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 317-321)