The Niagara Movement Remembered By Cassiette West-Williams

Brilliant, brazen and bold are what the Niagara Movement can be described as from a historical perspective. Black people gathered together to improve and uplift our race in 1905, as some people thought (and still think) that African Americans should work as servants or in menial roles. Equal housing, access to employment, better public education and the right to vote were some of the agenda items that the Niagara Movement addressed nationally, and are still the same areas that impact Black communities 113 years later.

On the anniversary of their historic meetings, we take a look back to review their accomplishments and find ways to continue to support a national agenda that continues to be ignored by our current mainstream leadership. The Niagara movement led to the formation of the NAACP in 1909.

300-Niagara Delegates 1906
Niagara Movement delegates, Anthony Hall, Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, August 17, 1906, W. E. B. Dubois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts. W. E. B. Du Bois seated in front row, fifth from the right.

In 1905, 29 men gathered together to establish the Niagara Movement. In 1906, one of those men was George W. Ford, serving as a State secretary (Louisiana), and later appointed to the Army Navy Committee in the movement, and grandfather of Traveler publisher Mrs. Elise F. Allen. Historical records show Ford’s attendance in notes from meetings held between 1905-1907, when the male only organization chose different articles that they wanted addressed in the Black (Colored in that era) press.

One of its most prominent founders in 1905 was Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, who established this group to counter racism and accepting low standards for African Americans. Dr. DuBois, who was also a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), used the magazines he published to advance the Niagara Movement’s goals and agenda.

Dr. DuBois was a Fisk University graduate and the first Black graduate of Harvard University. Harvard contested his degree from a historically Black college (HBCU) and made him leave the Ivy League campus by 6pm daily, as people of color were not allowed to remain on site. It was due to these insults and racist taunts that Dr. DuBois established this organization. DuBois would publish books and a three-volume autobiography. He is probably best known for his book, “The Souls of Black Folks.”

Dr. DuBois was against the beliefs of Booker T. Washington, who formed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington was a Hampton University graduate, who would later team up with millionaire Andrew Carnegie, touring Europe and raising money for himself and Tuskegee. Washington also kept company with John D. Rockefeller and also was granted (not earned) an honorary degree from Harvard University.

Washington was much older than Dr. DuBois and he believed that Blacks should have a skill set that allowed them to work with their hands, in a limited, service capacity. Washington believed that people of color were happy to have employment and that was enough for them. Washington also traveled the country proclaiming that he was the “voice” of Black America, but was constantly challenged by the radical types as with Dr. DuBois.

Washington did promote education and literacy, but pushed his students to have trades instead of college degrees and professional positions. Washington remained in certain circles that allowed him to intermingle with white businessmen, while Dr. DuBois fought the mainstream gatekeepers. Washington considered Dr. DuBois and the men involved in the Niagara Movement “agitators” and disregarded the need for “civil rights” in America.

Washington believed that Native Americans and Blacks should work with white quietly and not rock the boat. Accept the scraps that life had to offer and make do with life in the United States. Washington used his influence to make Black newspapers ignore the policies that the Niagara Movement put forth.

The middle and upper class feud between the men became a reason why the Niagara movement was popular. Just because a woman of color could cook, did not mean that she had to “work” her entire life in someone’s kitchen. Just because a man could build homes did not mean that he had to work outside all year-long.

Despite Washington’s public fight with Dr. DuBois, they did work together to try to eliminate Jim Crow laws with politicians and by changing the laws. Unfortunately, neither man lived long enough to witness the changes in American society.

Sources used include: Profiles of great Americans, Biography (ivdeo) and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Up From Slavery

Very Important Facts regarding the Niagara Movement

Reading Dr. DuBois’ speech from 1906 is reflective of the falsehood that people of color suffer today from. The Niagara Movement, which was founded by two men of color, was one of the reasons that the civil rights movement had such a forceful jump-start. William Monroe Trotter and William Edward Burghardt DuBois had an agenda which pressed for equality and rights immediately in July 1905.

Had it not been for the 29 male founders of The Niagara Movement, we would be further behind in our struggle for justice on these soils. Although this group only was established for four years (1905 – 1909), their impact and influence was a catalyst for many changes that eventually happened in the 1950s – 1970s. Both men were deceased when their thrust for the organization actually materialized.

During the meeting at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Dr. DuBois said, “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.

The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth the land of the thief and the home of the slave — a bywood and a hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishments,” said Dr. DuBois in July 1906.

Other main points included:

They were not bowing down to be docile.

They refused to be conciliatory or compromise the abilities of people of color.

They said political protest and civil disobedience would change the United States.

They believed that Blacks would not be limited to menial positions and trade jobs.

They let their voices speak out against the Plessy vs. Ferguson Case of 1896, which legally “authorized” Jim Crow Laws in America.

They knew that segregation could not be a way of life for all Americans and refused to be quiet about it.

Trotter and DuBois disagreed about what the woman’s role should be in the Niagara Movement. Trotter did not want women as members and eventually left this organization. Dr.  DuBois accepted women and later evolved into the NAACP, with women members in 1909. In 1905, the first meeting of the 28 men was in the home of a woman civil rights leader (Mary B. Talbert of Buffalo, NY).

Dr. DuBois concluded his remarks with the following: “Never before in the modern age has a great and civilized folk threatened to adopt so cowardly a creed in the treatment of its fellow-citizens born and bred on its soil. Stripped of verbiage and subterfuge and in its naked nastiness the new American creed says: Fear to let black men even try to rise lest they become the equals of the white. And this is the land that professes to follow Jesus Christ. The blasphemy of such a course is only matched by its cowardice. We want full manhood suffrage, and we want it now, henceforth and forever,” he said.

A special thank you to the  women librarians and staff at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Library in Chicago, IL for their great assistance with locating and documenting accurate sources. Siteseen Limited Publishing, Niagara Movement Speech by Dr. W.E. B. DuBois (Teaching American History)