The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk Summary and Analysis of "Of the Meaning of Progress"


Unlike his other essays which were strictly political and devoid of anecdotes, Of the Meaning of Progress tells the story of Du Bois’ personal journey as a teacher. While a student at Fisk University, Du Bois, along with many other Fisk students, went around Tennessee looking to meet with school commissioners. In this era, they believed that all of Tennessee, within and outside of the veil, belonged to Fisk. In order to be qualified to teach, students needed to take classes at the Teachers’ Institute. White teachers were taught in the morning, whereas black students were taught at nighttime. This prepared students to search for schools at which they would teach throughout the area.

Without much direction, Du Bois went around Tennessee seeking a county school at which to teach. Unable to afford a horse or carriage, Du Bois walked around the state to different areas of the country, asking people if they had a teacher. Time and again, his hopes were dashed as he learned that every one of his targeted schools already had a schoolteacher. He kept trying, however, and finally came to a small school amongst an array of cabins and farmhouses. He uses this anecdote to introduce Josie, who introduced him to the school; she was twenty-year-old young woman with thick hair. He had met her by chance, when he stopped for a rest in Watertown. Upon hearing his mission, Josie excitedly explained that the town was in need of a teacher, and that she, at twenty years of age, still yearned to learn.

Du Bois continues his mission to establish a school by meeting with the commissioner. Another white man had decided he wanted a neighboring white school, and they rode together to the commissioner’s home to gain permission. The commissioner was very welcoming, and immediately accepted Du Bois’ certificate. However, when it came to dinner, he was asked what he wanted to eat. Confused and feeling lucky, he accepted the invitation from the white man to eat in his company. Du Bois states that he then felt the “shadow of the veil” (50), as when the food was served, the white men ate first. Du Bois was left to eat all by himself, due to nothing else but the “Veil” and his color.

Josie and her family served as somewhat of a second family for W.E.B. Du Bois as he was stationed in Alexandria. In his time there, he became close with her parents, and learned about her siblings. The mother often told him that she desired to live “like folks” (Du Bois, Page 49). They had four remaining children at home: John and Jim, both teenagers, and two babies. Josie was the source of strength for that family, as she was always occupied and at the same time completely selfless and dedicated to her family. They strove to assimilate into society, but at the same time, realized the ignorance that they held. Overall, Du Bois realized, they knew how difficult it was to ascend from the position in which they were. With this in mind, it seems, Josie and her two brothers enrolled in his school.

The reality became even more salient for Du Bois when he began to teach. In a dilapidated schoolhouse with rented chairs and an old chalkboard, he set out to teach the poorly educated kids of the community. For the first time, Du Bois was confronted with the privilege that had been allotted to him as a student in New England, where he had been a student in a pristine integrated classroom. These students and this schoolhouse, however, were the polar opposite. At times, the children did not go to class because they had to help their parents out on their respective farms. Other times, parents pulled their children out of class because they did not believe in, or value, the written education Du Bois attempted to provide. The students themselves even demonstrated their fear of the town of Alexandria, because of all of the aristocrats that had lived there. Through this all, Du Bois further understood the inequalities faced by blacks in the South.

Ten years after he left town, Du Bois found himself at a reunion at Fisk University. Nostalgia brought him back to the school children and the countryside, where he learned that Josie had died. Jim, one of her younger brothers, was charged with stealing wheat, and was told that he should run away. He remained in town anyway, and this defiance and these accusations led to the demise of Josie. She worked hard until her death, and was even able to move into the city of Nashville for work. She brought back ninety dollars for her family, and continued working. One day, her youngest sister came home with a small child and Josie continued working. In her weakness, she went to her mother, and fell asleep. She never woke up again.

Du Bois’ journey to the town where he had work exemplified what progress meant in that era. The schoolhouse was closed, and there was only one session of school per year, but this, he stated, was exemplification of progress. He had also learned that a family he had known ten years ago, who had committed to owning the seventy-five acres on which they lived, had completed their goal, and added twenty-five more acres. Although they were in deep debt, this was also a depiction of progress. The author remains confused, as he realizes that the word progress is a paradoxical description of what was happening in this town. He did not quite understand how one could simultaneously claim progress and have people dying because of hard work and strife.


This chapter of The Souls of Black Folk depicts Du Bois' journey into self-realization. Previously, he had alluded to how African-American boys achieved manhood through education. In this essay, Du Bois has pursued education at Fisk University, and has committed himself to providing an education for people within a southern town. In this part of the book, Du Bois expands upon the theme "the importance of education", particularly in his search for a new school.

Du Bois' achievement of education and ultimate opening of a school served as a climax for the rest of the story. While he did not pursue teaching as a career, he did pursue academia, and served to provide better opportunities for other African-Americans throughout his life. His experience within this context ultimately instructed the rest of his experience as a sociologist and a black advocate.

On his search for a school, Du Bois had to go to a white commissioner to receive a certificate that would ultimately allow him to do so. When he goes to ask for this certificate, he rides along with a white man who is attempting to do the same thing. Upon arriving, he is treated as an equal and ultimately granted the certificate that he needed. After this, however, he was confronted with the Veil.

Despite everything he had achieved and his being granted his school, he realized that he lived within the veil. No amount of education could eradicate the prejudice that he lived within. He would have to work his whole life to overcome this, and it may have never even been possible. Du Bois, however, uses this as an opportunity not only to teach within the country, but also to provide opportunity and hope to a group of people who would otherwise have none. He realized that they existed within the veil, but he did his best to allot them the opportunities to which he had access.

Josie, one of the students of his school, was the most important part of this chapter. Josie's personal struggle signifies not only her family's struggle but also the struggle of all of the black people. Uneducated until the age of twenty, Josie decided to attend school and better herself. After receiving this education, however, she ultimately met many different deterrents throughout her life. Josie's life first begins to take a turn for the worst when her brother faces problems with the law, and eventually disappears. She attempts to overcome this struggle, but her devotion to her family and her sadness results in her own death. In essence, Josie reverts back to childhood and dies within the arms of her father.

The title of this essay is an ironic take on the meaning of "progress.” While the United States was going through progress and African-Americans even had opportunities to achieve educational opportunities, there was very little progress since this was taken over by industrialization. Industrialization and capitalism, according to Du Bois, was not progress, as this idealization of money and business did not provide opportunities for success. Instead, it provided the working community that has developed into 21st Century industrial America, unfocused on education, and focused on capital.