Booker T. Washington

Following the smoke of Confederate and Union gunfire emerged the self-reliant and awe-inspiring Booker Taliaferro Washington. As a distinguished black educator, a commanding broker, and an ethical as well as economical constructionist, he stepped up to the podium of civil reform with authority. Life was not easy for young Booker T; from the moment of his delivery on April 5, 1856, he was clamped into bondage. Toiling in the backbreaking salt furnace from the age of ten with his father, whilst partially attending school in Malden, West Virginia was a demanding schedule, which was only alleviated by his acceptance to the Hampton Institute, a school set up by whites to edify newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It was there, he worked as a janitor to support himself and pay his tuition and boarding fee. Completing his regular studies at Hampton in 1875, he was later hired in the fall of 1879 to teach Native Americans youths and direct night classes for black men and women. Evidently, well acquainted with the hardships of the common (black) man, Booker T. Washington was an exemplar of black solidarity and idyllic for the institutionalization of economic reform for the betterment of the Negro community. His revolutionary outlook on the enhancement of African Americans up the slippery social ladder of white supremacy proved to be very effective in post-Civil War America; by the injection of ultramodern reformist thought into the Negro psyche and the restructuring of outdated modes of ‘black behavior’ by means of an economic guise, he propelled blacks irretrievably forward. Booker T. Washington’s beliefs still echo through our society today.

The aforementioned Hampton Institute provided Washington with a sturdy foundation for his later achievements. Although the curriculum was centered on industrial arts and moral cultivation rather than intellectual pursuits, he unearthed the goodness in character formation and modeled his behavior accordingly. In 1881, these principles chiseled the infrastructure of his Normal and Industrial Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Erected from a dilapidated shanty and church, came forth the foremost educational institution for blacks, which simultaneously sponsored and built momentum for the “Tuskegee Movement:” an array of policies, views, and tactics that illuminated Booker T. Washington as “the race leader” in dealing with the “Negro Problem” (as his supporters in both the North and South saw it). From his southern small-town nucleus he bejeweled the nation with a network of schools and newspapers, offering a means by which the Negro populace could liberate themselves of Jim Crow’s noose and Uncle Tom’s iron-grip. He later established the National Negro Business League (1901). Single-handedly, he was molding a more self-confident, headstrong black man.

Washington urged blacks in the South to accept social segregation and to concentrate on acquiring more education and better jobs. His philosophy about race relations and his burgeoning influence rapt white northern philanthropists and enjoyed great recognition among blacks. In a speech delivered in 1895, known as the Atlanta Compromise address, he voiced the doctrine of accommodationism whereby he staunchly advocated antidemocratic views and endorsed segregation to all those present.

Cast down your buckets where you are…In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress (Garraty, p.859).

Initially, it seems anti-progressive but it is quite the reverse. Offering his people attainable goals, bestowed upon them a previously nonexistent duty to uplift the race.

Several other black leaders of his time who advocated political action for immediate civil rights were struck down by Washington’s ruthless strain of boss politics whereby intimidation was employed to silence those with beliefs deviating from his own. With little tolerance for newspaper editors and intellectuals who pushed for equality rather than accommodationism, he suppressed their views by alienation and redundancy. The most eloquent and formidable of his contemporary opposition, W.E.B. Du Bois, debated over Washington’s “industrial” aims as opposed to his version of “classical” education for blacks. Although, the two were at ends on the method of Negro development, they strived for the same eventual goal, black advancement. Du Bois aimed to achieve this by political reform, whilst Washington strived to do so by economic amelioration.

The wisest among my race understands that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing (Salley, p.15).

Booker T. Washington’s aloofness on the issue of Negro denial to citizenship exasperated tensions between black and whites and led to the formation of the Niagara Movement (1905-1909) and the NAACP. Both groups worked to alleviate the Negro’s plight, through civil and political rights as well as anti-lynching campaigns. Even though Washington did not explicitly back the crusade, he secretly fought against racial violence and Jim Crow laws by protecting blacks from lynching mobs and filing anonymous letters of protest.

Booker T. Washington’s motto was ‘work hard and acquire property’ and whites will accept you. By the endorsement of segregation and racial pride, he pleased both whites and blacks alike. Upholding white recognition and international distinction played essential roles in the schematics of his master plan for black progress in a segregated macrocosm. The legacy of his philosophy still reverberates through his timeless autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), where he stood firm on economic self-reliance.

Tell them that the sacrifice was not in vain. Tell them that by habits of thrift and economy, by way of the industrial school and college, we are coming. We are crawling up, working up, yea, bursting up: often through oppression, unjust discrimination and prejudice, but through them all we are coming up, and with proper habits, intelligence and property, there is no power on earth that can permanently stay our progress (Salley, p.17).