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Contending Forces

Pauline Hopkins, Booker T. Washington, and the Fight for The Colored American Magazine.

By the time Hopkins wrote her piece on Washington, her writing career had reached what looked to be stable footing for a Black woman living at the turn of the century. Eschewing the freelance route, she hoped to spend the rest of her writing days at The Colored American, where she’d been since the magazine’s formation. She was one of its first hires and was deeply invested in its success, writing several features per issue, often under pseudonyms so readers wouldn’t tire of seeing her name (and later for safety reasons). Although she was primarily interested in the magazine’s editorial operations, Hopkins was also invested in its financial health and commercial viability. According to her biography, she had a knack for introducing different avenues to attract readers, including the creation of a subscription model and drafting engaging editorial callouts for funding. She put everything she could into running the magazine, including her wit, organizing skills, and economic acumen, working past normal business hours and sacrificing a social life to ensure its quality. In The Colored American, Hopkins found a welcome audience in a Black publication that, though under-staffed and consistently nearing insolvency, worked to offer both visibility and financial compensation to its contributors.

All this artistic progress and business development would come to an astounding and bitter end two years after Hopkins published her Washington entry. While not a hit piece by any margin, it paled alongside the articles written by white people who revered him, and Black leaders who viewed him as a potent model for hope. Hopkins was hardly the first person to take on what she believed to be Washington’s accommodationist policies—policies that called for Black people to warm themselves with the same fire set by thieves and not fear getting burned alive. Another notable critic of Washington’s social stances was William Monroe Trotter, the founder and editor of the well-respected Boston Guardian. But Hopkins was one of very few upwardly mobile, policy-focused Black women to take on the preeminent “race man.” 

It didn’t help matters that her critiques of Washington became a regular feature of The Colored American. In 1903’s “Latest Phases of the Race Problem in America,” a lead essay written under a pseudonym, Hopkins delivered what seems to be the most blistering take against Washington and those who stood by him. She wrote, “Any proposal to submit the question of the political or civil rights of the Negro to the arbitrament of the whites is as absurd as to submit the question of the political rights of the whites to the arbitrament of the Negroes, with one difference, the Negroes are loyal to the government.” Simply put, Hopkins believed that freedom could not be negotiated and any work to do so was not only a mistake, but it was one where the stakes would always be unendingly higher for Black people.