Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery on a farm in Franklin County Virginia in 1856. Washington is a surname he adopted upon taking lessons in a little school at his home. In 1872, he worked his way to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, where he paid his expenses by assisting as a janitor. The Hampton Institute opened in April 1868 under the direction of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong with the goal: “to train selected youth who shall go out and teach and lead their people, first by example by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they can earn from themselves; to teach respect for labor; to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands; and to these ends to build up an industrial system, for the sake of character” (Brawley, 158). These ideas are reflected later in Washington’s own thought and program at the Tuskegee Institute. After graduating in 1875, he returned to Malden West Virginia where he taught school for three years. In 1879, he was appointed to instructor at Hampton Institute. In 1881, General Armstrong recommended Washington to organize and become principle of a school to open in the little town of Tuskegee Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881 for the purpose of training teachers in Alabama. The students were required to build their own buildings and produce their own food. Soon after its founding, the Tuskegee Institute became a center of industrial and agricultural education. In 1900, Washington establishes the National Negro Business League, publishing his autobiography Up From Slavery in 1901. From 1890 until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was the dominant leader of the African American community.
Booker T. Washington is generally understood as an advocate of self-help and industrial education who avoided directly confronting the segregation and disenfranchisement issues, while working quietly behind the scenes to combat the deteriorating racial situation at the turn of the century. Classically, Du Bois is positioned as the alternative to Washington’s method, as Du Bois argued for activism and civil rights with the conviction that industrial education alone would not serve the African American community. Yet, there is evidence that Washington and Du Bois worked together behind the scenes to undermine segregation on railroads and other challenges to African Americans’ civil rights. Washington is known as the “Great Educator” and the “Great Conciliator.” He “stressed the belief that the practice of thrift, industry, [and] Christian morality would eventually earn blacks their rights. In preparation for this outcome…blacks must learn trades so that they can transform themselves into a productive work force and begin accumulating capital and developing their community and their institutions” (Wentz, 2). Washington believes African Americans are best served by being taught to work and save, because “this will create the wealth from which alone can come leisure and the opportunity for higher education.” (Negro Problem, 8). Washington gained the trust of Southern whites and Northern philanthropists by reassuring them that Tuskegee’s educational program would not challenge white supremacy or offer economic competition with whites. Washington accepted racial subordination as a necessary evil, at least until such time as blacks could prove themselves worthy of full civil and political rights. He believed that industrial education would enable blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and escape the trap of sharecropping and debt. “Every colored mechanic is by virtue of circumstances an elevator of his race” (Negro Problem, 18).
As Washington sees it, Africans Americans were being trained in an industrial school of the slave plantation, where they learned how to be farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, cooks, laundresses, etc. (Negro Problem, 11). As generations passed, those skills were no longer transmitted to the future generations. They were being replaced by training in Latin and other subjects that were of no help to the circumstances open to blacks. Washington believes it is harmful for African Americans to be taught to give greater credibility to city life, when most blacks lived in the South, and the opportunities there reflected skills they no longer wanted to have since they were equated with slavery. Therefore, Washington sees industrial training as more useful to the greater number of African Americans than a liberal education. Industrial training provides the skills for living life successfully every day, whereas a liberal education might not get used. As Washington notes, “our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life” (Negro Problem, 17). “I believe most earnestly that for years to come the education of the people of my race should be so directed that the greatest proportion of the mental strength of the masses will be brought to bear upon the everyday practical things of life, upon something that is needed to be done, and something which they will be permitted to do in the community in which they reside” (Negro Problem, 17). It is clear that Washington believes the future for African Americans is in the South, discouraging movement into the cities (Negro Problem, 18).
Booker T. Washington was a leader, but he was never seen as an intellectual or a writer. Instead his skills were in being a political organizer and a power-broker. He was a pragmatic manipulator of political power who had a well-developed sense of the possibilities of the political and racial situation in the South, and used the power that he had to effect change in the context within which he operated. Washington focused his energies on the South, based in his belief that that was where the future of the black race resided. Eventually, Washington became an adviser to U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Taft, both of whom harbored racist ideologies, leading many to see Washington as a tool of racial subordination. It is in this powerful position that Washington was able to exclude his critics from government jobs, university appointments, and access to philanthropic funds. Through these efforts Washington was able to give a voice to African American life on a national stage. His vision of African American progress was promoted and accepted by many leading figures of the day and inspired its fair share of critics, creating the next generation of African American leaders. His ability to form coalitions at all levels of society provided the means to educate many African Americans in the South and serves as an indelible part of African American history in the United States.
Brawley, Benjamin Griffith. (1913). A Short History of the American Negro. New York: Macmillan Publishers.
Wentz, Cary D. (ed.) (1996). African American Political Thought 1890-1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today. (1903). New York: James Pott and Company