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Booker T. Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington was the foremost black educators of the 19th and 20th centuries. He also had a major influence on southern race relations and was a dominant figure in black affairs from 1895 until his death in 1915.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1858. As a slave Booker did not have a last name and chose “Washington,” his stepfather’s name. After the Civil War Booker, his brother, and his mother moved to Malden, West Virginia were they went to live with his stepfather, whom they had only seen a few times. When they arrived in Walden, Washington was no more than 10 years old. However, he immediately went to work with his stepfather at the salt mines feeding the furnace. His education started with a Webster’s “Blue Black” spelling book that his mother had provided him. She hoped it would help him to learn to lead. Washington was unable to do much reading at home because he would work from dawn until around 9:00 at night, but during his breaks he would study his reading book teaching himself how to read. While working at the salt mines a local school opened up for black people. Unfortunately Washington was unable to attend the school because of his value to his family and
stayed at the salt mines at the request of his parents. Eventually Washington was able to talk to his parents and convince them to let him attend the school for a few hours a day. Washington, however, had a problem. His stepfather wanted him to work until 9:00 a.m. This made it almost
impossible for him to make it to class on time so Washington came up with an idea. Every morning he would change the clock from a half past eight to nine so that he could make it to class on time.
Later, the young Washington took a job at the home of Mrs. Ruffiner as a servant. Ruffiner was a very strict lady and expected the best out of the people that worked for her. She demanded that they be clean and well behaved. This stayed with Washington for the rest of his life. He notes, “Even to this day I’ve never seen bits of paper scattered around the house or on the streets that I didn’t want to pick up at once.”
Washington worked for Ruffiner for over a year and a half until he was accepted at the Hampton Institute. The Hampton Institute was set up to educate African-Americans after the Civil War. At the Hampton Institute Washington worked as the janitor to support himself, pay his tuition and his room and board. While at the institute Washington meets a man by the name of General Armstrong. Armstrong was the principal at the school and became one of Washington’s closest friends. Washington writes: “a great man-the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet.”
While at the Institute Washington learned important lessons in education that he would carry with him for the rest of his life. These lessons included the fact that keeping clean was an important part of a persons self worth. He also learned that education does not mean that one was above manual labor. Washington felt that education should be well rounded and that a person should learn to love labor. He should also become self reliant and useful to those around him. He believed that a person should not be selfish and should lead by example. After
graduation in 1875, he returned home to Malden to teach school for both black children and adults. It was at this time where Washington was recognized as an eloquent speaker and leader in the black community. In 1878 he left Malden to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C. In 1879 Armstrong asked him to return to Hampton as a teacher.
In May of 1881, General Armstrong received a request from a group of philanthropists to suggest a principal for a new school for colored people in a small town in Alabama. When the request was made it was assumed that no colored man would be qualified for the position, but to the surprise of the founders Washington was suggested for the position. After arriving in Tuskegee, Washington decided that the school would open on July 4, 1881. The doors opened as planned and the Tuskegee Institute was off and running.
Washington believed that the purpose of the Institute was to produce people who could work hard, to learn a trade, and most importantly earn a living. In addition to this he also hope that the students would learn the importance to cleanliness and spirituality. Washington hope that the graduates would go throughout the country and be an example to all that came in contact with them. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught, but a stronger emphasis was placed on the trades and daily living skills. He wanted students to know that there was no shame in being a laborer. He believed that an education was for the whole person and not an excuse to avoid work. As part of the student training , they were required to do all of the work around the campus. Learning a marketable trade such as construction, farming, raising livestock and mechanical repairs were vital. Life skills like keeping a handbook, saving money, bathing, and table manners were also taught.’ Furthermore, Washington made religion a part of his student
program .Although no particular religion was forced on them, it was part of the education to attend daily services. By doing this Washington felt he was teaching students to be complete persons who could be proud of themselves and what they were able to accomplish.
In the beginning Washington found it hard to raise money for the school because the state was neither generous nor stable enough to build the kind of school he was developing. Washington had to come up with a way to raise money for the newly founded Tuskegee Institute. Washington was able to do this by going on speaking tours and soliciting donations. He was impressing white northerners with the work he was doing and his non-threatening racial views. Washington was able to get donations from many of the top industrialist of the time such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
Twenty years after its beginnings, the Tuskegee Institute encompassed over 2,300 acres of land, 66 buildings built by the students, and over thirty industrial departments.’ All of the industrial departments taught trades that allowed students to get jobs as soon as they left the institute. Washington had turned the Tuskegee Institute into one of the leading African-American educational institutions in the country.
Today the emphasis is placed on a college degree in academics, instead of manual labor. Also moral character is not part of today’s teachings. Joe Maxwell of the Capital Research Center writes in the report ” The Legacy of Booker T Washington” that market trends have shown Washington’s system may provide more jobs to a greater number of the population. He reports that a recent survey showed that 25 percent of small businesses surveyed are worried about the shrinking number of qualified workers in the trades. Since the Civil Rights movement
in the 1960’s living standards for African-Americans have declined notably. Some African-American leaders feel that a return to the ways Booker T Washington.
Booker T Washington developed a leadership style based on the model of the old plantation house servant. He used humility, politeness, flattery and restraint as a wedge with which hoped would split the wall of racial discrimination.’ His conciliatory approach won the enthusiastic support of the solid south as well a that of influential Northern Politicians and industrialists. Their backing gained him a national reputation and provided him with easy access to the press.
It was Washington’s non-threatening racial views that got him the appellation “The Great Accomodater”. Washington felt that blacks should earn their political and civil rights by improving their economic skills and the quality of their character. Putting the burden of improvement on the shoulders of the black men. If they were to work hard enough and prove their selves they would be able to gain the political and civil rights from the white man. His view on integration consisted of living by example. Washington felt that if black people were to show white people that they could be civilized and be an asset to the community all races would eventually be able to get along. He didn’t think that the government could force one race to accept another with the stroke of a pen. At the time when black leaders rejected laws and traditions which discriminated against African Americans, Washington spoke in favor of cooperation. In Atlanta, Georgia in 1883 Washington said “In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This would become known as the “Atlanta Compromise” and denounced Washington’s emphasis of
vocational over intellectual development.
In 1895 Washington was invited to speak at The Cotton States Convention in Atlanta to help represent the south a desirable location for future financial investment. They wanted him to create this picture with the image of racial harmony. Washington saw this as a chance comment on racial relations as well as to advance the status of his people. Washington says that ” the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that to back the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanately succeed.” His speech was based on two graphic images. The first image he used was of a ship at sea without any fresh water. It signaled a passing ship that it needed fresh water. When they pulled their buckets back up they didn’t find what they expected. Instead of finding salt water as they had expected, the buckets were filled with fresh water from the Amazon. Washington used this analogy to suggest that the situation between whites and blacks could improve if they would begin where they were at. He states: “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are, cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing
is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.” The second image he used was that of a hand. He pointed out that while the hand was one, the fingers were separate. He suggested that national unity and social segregation could go together. Washington then turned to the whites in the audience and urged them to start where they were in building national prosperity and racial unity. He said: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of
head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. . . . so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.” This proposal brought forth a thunderous applause. He felt that the wisest of his race were aware that fighting for social equality was a folly. The ex-slave must prepare himself for the assumption of his rights, which were privileges to be earned.
The Atlanta Compromise was a means to an end and not an end in itself. If an ex-slave could start at the bottom and develop manners and friendliness, Washington believed that he could earn his rights. He felt that the individual Afro-Americans would gain trust, acceptance, and respect. The class line based on the color of ones skin would be replaced by ones intelligence and morality.
At the conclusion of the speech the audience applauded wildly. After reading the speech, President Cleveland wrote Washington and thanked him for what he had said. The next year Washington was honored at Harvard University with an honorary master’s degree.
As Washington’s influence with whites and blacks grew he was able to reap the benefits. In 1901 he wrote Up From Slavery which was a best selling autobiography. He also became an advisor for President Theodore Roosevelt. He was the first black man ever to dine in the White
House with the President.
Eventually Washington’s leadership of blacks began to decline. It had become apparent that the white people of the south had gained control after the reconstruction and never wanted the civil and political status of the blacks to improve. There was also the problem of growing black and white liberal opposition in the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. These groups were demanding civil rights and encouraging protests in response to white aggressions such as lynching, disfranchisement, and segregation laws. Washington was initially able to fend off these critics often by underhanded means. At the same time, however, he was able to translate his own personal success into black advancement through secret sponsorship of civil rights cases, serving on boards at Fisk and Howard Universities, and directing philanthropic aid to these and other black colleges.
Washington presided over Tuskegee until his death on November 14, 1915. He had written 12 books, the most famous being, Up From Slavery. He sat for dinners with the President of the United Stated, royalty of Europe, as well as most of the industrial powerhouses of his time. He was an intelligent man trying to what he felt was best for his people. Which was to provide them with the chance to get an education to better themselves and help them to lead commendable lives. Washington did not think it was possible to take a race that had been held as slaves for generations and set them free and expect them to be equal to their former masters. It is impossible to sum up what Washington thought about race relation and the education of African Americans without using his own words from The Atlanta Cotton States and International
Exposition, in Atlanta on September 18, 1895:
“Progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing….it is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than an opportunity to spend a dollar at an opera house.”
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery, an autobiography. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday.
Louis R. Harlan, Booker T Washington, 2 vols. (1972, 1983), with Raymond W. Smock, eds., The Booker T Washington Papers, 12 vols. (1972-): August Meier, Negro Thoughts in America, 1880-1915 (1963).
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