Date of Award

May 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Leslie J. Harris

Committee Members

William M. Keith, Kathryn M. Olson, John W. Jordan, Robert S. Smith


African American, Black Freedom Struggle, Identity, Rhetoric, Twentieth Century, Uplift


During the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century, the notion of “uplift” functioned as a major thematic within African American rhetorical culture. In this milieu, “uplift” generally connoted a sense of collective self-help. However, in contrast to more generalized reform efforts, uplift was expressed as a distinctly intraracial endeavor. That is, rather than overtly leveraging the dominant white society to enact legal or political reforms, uplift typically centered on the ways in which African Americans could enhance the quality of black life independent from white involvement.

Understood as public proposals for how African Americans could employ forms of self-help to improve some dimension of black life, uplift appeals marked a rich site of rhetorical activity. The rhetorical substance of those appeals represents the general focus of this dissertation. More specifically, this study investigates how uplift was expressed in the public discourse of four prominent early twentieth-century black spokespersons: Mary Church Terrell, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Ralph Ellison. Through rhetorical analysis of these four figures’ public appeals for uplift, this dissertation argues that, during the early twentieth century, uplift functioned as a dynamic symbolic source of black identity. In other words, public expressions of uplift did more than just promote ways of pursuing self-help; they also made available opportunities for understanding and performing black public identity.