Booker Taliaferro Washington was the foremost black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also had a major influence on southern race relations and was the dominant figure in black public affairs from 1895 until his death in 1915.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a small farm in the Virginia backcountry. Not much is known of his father, even by Washington himself, except that he was a local white man. His mother, Jane, raised him, and he was put to work as early as possible. Since it was illegal for a slave to learn to read and write Washington received no education.
For the first nine years of his life until 1865 when the close of the War for Southern Independence emancipated the boy Booker and the remainder of his race, he like many other Americans of dark skin had been considered a piece of property on a Southern plantation. Any education extraneous to their enforced labor had been forbidden to most Negroes in the South. By 1895 however, in his historic Atlanta Exposition Address, Washington was to say:
Starting thirty years ago with ownership here and there in a few quilts and pumpkins and chickens (gathered from miscellaneous sources), remember the path that has led from these to the inventions and production of agricultural implements, buggies, steam engines, newspapers, books, statuary, carving, paintings, the management of drug-stores and banks, has not been trodden without contact with thorns and thistles.1
This famous speech placed Washington in the national spotlight as the leader of his race. How did he rise to the top? What were the methods he used to raise his people, and how did he discover those ways?
Declared free, Booker and his mother
and brother John journeyed several hundred miles from the plantation in Franklin
County, Virginia to Malden in West Virginia where they joined his step-father
who worked in the salt furnaces and coal-mines.2 Booker had to work in the mines
until nine at night, but his intense desire to learn enabled him to master a
Webster "blue-back" spelling book, and even led him to move ahead the
hands of the clock at work so he could get to his night school by nine.3 It was
at this Kanawha Valley school that he selected the name Washington which his
older brother later adopted.4
While playing marbles with other boys, an old, colored man told Booker about the meaning of Sunday school. He gave up his marble game for regular Sunday school attendance in Malden, and later he became the teacher and superintendent of this school where he had learned to read.5
Once while working in a coal mine in the earth over a mile from the light of day, Booker overheard two men mention a school for the colored where poor but worthy students could work for their bed and board while learning a trade. The fire of ambition was lit in the boy, and everything he did pointed toward his one goal---Hampton Institute. Later the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was to describe this attribute.
The secret of Mr. Washington's power is organization, and organization after all is only a concentration of force. This concentration only expresses his own personality, in which every trait and quality tend toward one definite end.6
He took a job in the home of Mrs.
Ruffner, an exacting, stern disciplinarian who demanded cleanliness and precise
truth all the time. Previous boys had lasted only about a week under Mrs.
Ruffner, but Booker was to devote himself for several years to perfecting his
work, allowing no leisure for mischief.7 This practice was continued at Hampton
Institute where he was accepted after enduring several tests of his
industriousness culminating in the use of a broom in a "sweeping
examination." His training served him well, and he became an assistant
janitor for several years while a student at Hampton.
In General Armstrong, the Principal of Hampton, Washington saw the ideal he was to strive for---honest, confident, "the most perfect specimen of man, physically, mentally and spiritually, that I had ever seen."8 Washington was inspired by educational work and felt that General Armstrong was but part of "that Christlike body of men and women who went into the Negro schools at the close of the war by the hundreds to assist in lifting up my race."9
The other great benefit Washington received from Hampton was his attitude toward education which changed from the common idea that education would free one from manual labor, to a love of labor, self-reliance, and usefulness, an unselfishness that strives to do the most to make others useful and happy. By experiencing this transformation himself, Washington could lead others through a more practical education.
As the Reconstruction period was closing in the late seventies, Washington taught school in West Virginia, dabbled in politics in support of making Charleston the capitol of West Virginia, and assisted with the education of Indians at Hampton Institute.10
When a normal school for colored was being established in Tuskegee, Alabama, the organizers asked General Armstrong to suggest a principal, assuming no qualified Negro could be found. However, he gave Washington a high recommendation, and on July 4, 1881 Tuskegee Institute opened its doors. The beginning was humble and the first efforts were in agriculture with "one hoe and a blind mule."11 A loan of $500 from General Marshall of Hampton Institute enabled them to buy a farm of 100 acres.12 Washington struggled to raise the money to pay back the loan and meet the payments on land and buildings. By 1900 the school owned 2,460 acres. Starting with three shanties which were repaired for class-rooms and dormitories, within two decades sixty buildings stood on the campus, and all but four of them had been built by students as part of their industrial education.13 By the third year student enrollment went from 30 to 169 and by 1894 it was 712 with 54 officers and teachers.14 Money received by the Institute in the first two years was $11,679 which was almost doubled the third year and after fourteen years was about $80,000 annually.
With these fourteen years of hard effort behind him, Booker T. Washington suddenly rose to national prominence in 1895. In the spring of that year he gave a well-received speech on "Industrial Education" at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Nashville American called it a "complete success" and compared Washington to Frederick Douglass as a "benefactor to the Negro race."15 Washington was on the verge of national recognition.
At the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in September, 1895, Negroes were invited to display their products, and Washington was selected as one of the State Commissioners of the Exposition as Tuskegee and Hampton had the largest Negro exhibits. The Board of the Exposition decided to invite Washington to deliver an address at the opening of the Exposition, marking the first opportunity for a Negro to speak on the same platform as white men in the South. He was diplomatic in his approach due to the predominantly white Southern audience, and yet was determined to say only what he felt in his heart was true and right.17 Washington spoke against agitation for social equality, and spoke toward "the highest intelligence and development of all" that the "enjoyment of all the privilege that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing."18 By coupling the higher good of absolute justice with material prosperity they could bring their "beloved South a new heaven and a new earth."19 Although criticized later by Du Bois as a compromise, the speech had tremendous power and within the context of the times probably did much to improve the friendship and working relationship between the races.
Washington had always felt that his people needed leadership from within, but the examples were few.20 Frederick Douglass had been the best, but he had recently died. After the famous Atlanta speech Washington was commonly introduced as the successor to Frederick Douglass. The Tuskegee leader was soon communicating with Presidents Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft, advising them on qualified Negroes for office. Roosevelt asked Washington, because he wanted men of character, not just of ability.21
Due to his leadership position and accomplishments, Washington exerted a great influence on most Negro newspapers, grants of money given to Negro institutions, and political appointments. As a man of action he was successful, but those who favored more emphasis on liberal education and the rights of man were antagonistic toward his personal control over these matters. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 conjecturing that the result of Washington's policies was Jim Crow legislation in the South. The exposing of the "Tuskegee Machine" of Washington's financial support of newspapers, magazines, and lobbying, unleashed the frustrations of men like Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, a Boston militant.22 At times Washington appeared to confuse his personal power with the cause of his race, as the abuse of greatness is the abuse of the power.
As if in defense of the Tuskegee graduate, Washington in The Story of the Negro compares the "courage" of the hero who in harsh and bitter remarks attempt to vindicate his race, while another man works patiently and persistently in a Negro school for years to help to uplift his race and yet gets no reputation for courage.23 One of Washington's most famous statements was, "I will let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him." Washington would never willingly or knowingly do anything to "provoke bitterness between the races or misunderstanding between the North and the South."24 In the twenty years before his death on November 14, 1915, Washington gave numerous speeches and wrote several books, while running Tuskegee Institute. How he nurtured the character of the students at Tuskegee sheds considerable light on Washington's attitudes and educational philosophy.
Washington's way was to combine
industrial training with mental and moral culture. His method was to study the
conditions and needs of the people and then to satisfy them practically as well
as he could. He observed that the need to take care of one's body and property,
and to establish an economic foundation on the soil of agriculture and the use
of industry were more important than the memorization of facts and reading of
Latin and Greek. Therefore Washington stressed cleanliness, personal neatness,
care of field and flock, housekeeping and mechanical skill as the immediate
needs to be met In his important book on industrial education Working With
the Hands, Washington wrote, "I soon learned that there was a great
difference between studying about things and studying the things themselves,
between book instruction and the illumination of practical experience."25
The important work of the teacher was not just to impart knowledge and maintain
discipline, but to "bring school life and real life into closer
contact."26 In the new industrial age the young people needed to
"increase the value of the material they handle and to make themselves more
useful as individuals."27
Tracing the history of the Negro, Washington found that in Africa they did little work as they lived off the tropical resources in a primitive way. Then Negroes were over-worked in America. Washington agreed with Abraham Lincoln that in slavery and ignorance a man gives the lowest and most costly service, yet in "freedom and enlightenment he renders the highest and most helpful form of service."28 With freedom many Negroes had adopted the attitude that labor was lowly and that education should raise them above work, but Washington felt that they had "to learn the difference between being worked and working---to learn that being worked meant degradation, while working means civilization."29 He wanted the black man to get out from under the drudgery and get on top of his work by putting skill and intelligence into it "to make the forces of nature---air, water, horse power, steam, and electric power---work for him."30 This way blacks could accomplish four times the work with half the labor. Washington did not want to start with education that was a thousand miles or a thousand years away from the Negro's present condition, for he saw a larger picture:
The white race has been two or three centuries learning that they have made a mistake in simply cultivating the head---in not coupling education of the head with the education of the hand. They have only discovered their mistake in the closing years of the nineteenth century.... And are not the masses of all races in all lands hungry? Are they not waiting and crying for the sort of education that will enable them to conquer their hunger by conquering the forces of nature and the ignorance which wastes more than it utilizes?31
Through the proper training of head,
hand, and heart, Tuskegee could develop teachers and leaders who would go out to
the people to "live among them and show them how to lift themselves
up."32 Industrial training had three functions. First, black students could
work to pay their expenses at school. Secondly they could develop skills that
would be of economic value when they left school. Third and most important was
to teach economy, thrift, the dignity of labor, and provide a strong moral
backbone.33 Thus industrial education aided moral education.
After emancipation, education had first stressed the intellectual - literature, math, and sciences. The result was that skilled tradesmen began to die out while the liberally educated could find little work. This education according to Washington's perception had placed a barrier between the young person and his work, because he felt above it. The attitude that work was degrading had led to laziness. For Booker "all honest work is honorable work." Women knew abstruse subjects, but not how to cook or sew. He was not against mental development, but wanted to balance it with the practical. "No race can be lifted until its mind is awakened and strengthened. By the side of industrial training should always go mental and moral training, but the pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head mean little."34 Industrial education was only a foundation. From it would come the professional, public positions of responsibility, moral and religious strength, and wealth and leisure which would allow one to enjoy literature and the fine arts.
With the above perspectives, Washington set to work in building an educational institution. In 1881, the first year of Tuskegee Institute, Washington began his students with the basics---to "teach them how to take care of their bodies in the matter of bathing, care of the teeth, and in general cleanliness. We also felt that we must not only teach the students how to prepare their food but how to serve and eat it properly."35 The attitude he found was "the feeling that to work with the hands was not conducive to being of the highest type of lady or gentleman. This feeling we wanted to change as fast as possible by teaching students the dignity, beauty and civilizing power of intelligent labor."36 In fact work soon became mandatory at Tuskegee. At first many students and parents did not like the industrial training as they wanted book learning. Despite the protests, Tuskegee continued its policy and gradually the complaints lessened. When the Negro people began to see the results of the industrial teaching, the response became so enthusiastic that Tuskegee had to refuse admission to hundreds every year who wanted this training. By 1900 Washington could write that it had been ten years since he had had a single objection to the students participating in industrial work.37
As the instruction at Tuskegee was expanding by 1900 into 33 trades and industries, the students were actually building the school. In an address at one of the meetings organized by General Armstrong in large cities to raise money for Tuskegee, Washington declared:
From the first we have carried out the plan at Tuskegee of asking help for nothing that we could do ourselves. Nothing has been bought that the students can produce. The boys have done the painting, made the bricks, the chairs, tables and desks, have built a stable and are now moving the carpenter shop. The girl do the entire housekeeping, including the washing, ironing and mending of the boys' clothing. Besides, they make garments to sell, and give some attention to flower gardening.38
The value of this work for
self-confidence, esteem and disciplined conduct must have been immense. How
likely was it that a student would try to carve his name on a door, for example,
when an older classmate was liable to tap him on the shoulder and say, "I
built that door"?
In 1892 Tuskegee held its first Negro Conference. The conference announced two goals:
First, to find out the actual industrial, moral and educational condition of the masses. Second, to get as much light as possible on what is the most effective way for the young men and women whom the Tuskegee Institute, and other institutions, are educating to use their education in helping the masses of the colored people to lift themselves up.39
The resulting consensus of the participants was published. Their appraisal and concerns can be summarized as follows:
thankfulness for existing freedom and harmony with white neighbors.
Second: most live agriculturally on rented lands and are in debt for supplies.
Third: mortgage system and credit leads to excessive spending with higher prices and interest.
Fourth: religion is improving in purity, becoming less superstitious and emotional, and more a part of daily living.
Fifth: schools are poor, ill-equipped and open only about three and a half months a year with little attendance.
Sixth: remedies for these conditions are:
raise own meat and bread at home;
2) buy land;
3) young people learn trades;
4) broaden the labor of women;
5) economize and pay off debts;
6) ministers and teachers give more attention to material conditions and home life;
7) supplement State-provided schools with own money and construction;
8) hire mentally and morally fit teachers;
9) eliminate sectarian prejudice over schools.
gratitude to all who help educate the Negro.
Eighth: appreciation for friendliness of Southern white businessmen.
Ninth: best aid is toward developing Christian leaders as object lessons for upliftment.
Tenth: cultivate friendship in the South and discourage emigration.40
These policies of the grassroots
blacks indicate agreement with the approach of Booker T. Washington.
The value of these conferences which were held annually was overwhelming, especially as the people were able to mark their improvement from year to year. Soon Worker's Conferences and Farmers' Conferences were also organized.41
More and more students were going out to their communities and setting an example as they spread the Tuskegee spirit In 1899 Washington could proudly write:
we continue placing men and women of intelligence, religion, modesty,
conscience, and skill in every community in the South, who will prove by actual
results their value to the community, this will constitute the solution for many
of the present political and sociological difficulties. It is with this larger
and more comprehensive view of improving present conditions and laying the
foundation wisely that the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute is training
men and women as teachers and industrial leaders.
Over four hundred students have finished the course of training at this institution and are now scattered throughout the South, doing good work. A recent investigation shows that about 3,000 students who have taken only a partial course are doing commendable work.... Wherever our graduates and ex-students go, they teach by precept and example the necessary lesson of thrift economy, and property-getting, and friendship between the races.42
For Washington, then, the end of education was not mere knowledge or skill, but goodness, usefulness, and power that a man may help his fellow man.43 He called any education "high" which enabled one to perform this service, and "low" that which did not make for character or effective service. Washington taught a Gospel of Service and observed that even the President of the United States was the servant of the people. The greater one is, the more he can be of service. Therefore, one should develop the ability to do. Teachers by putting more of themselves into their work would not only add to their own happiness and usefulness but would be "doing real work toward hastening the coming of that kingdom for which they daily pray," that they might "be used as tools to serve therewith their fellows and their Maker. This is the end of all living."44 Work, therefore led to the higher religious and spiritual goals.
Perhaps the real key to Booker T.
Washington's success was spiritual and inner development. He began to love and
understand the Bible while at Hampton, and spent a year of study at
Wayland Seminary where the "high Christian character of Dr. King" made
a strong impression on him.45 The first religious services at Tuskegee Institute
were conducted on Thanksgiving Day 1882 by a pastor from Montgomery.46 A few
years later an ordained minister was named chaplain of the school which
Washington described as "non-denominational but by no means
non-religious."47 Even though Tuskegee was non-sectarian, its daily life
was permeated by active religion.
Washington himself described the following significant religious influences at Tuskegee:
preaching service every Sunday for all teachers and students;
2) Sunday morning Christian Endeavour Society with scripture readings, prayer, and songs;
3) thirty-six Sunday school classes;
4) YMCA run by students which looks after the sick, needy, and elderly in the area;
5) two missionary groups and a YWCA for the young women;
6) Humane Society for the proper care of animals;
7) Tuskegee Women's Club and Mothers' Council in household matters;
8) every evening except Fridays and Saturdays the Principal or his representative led the whole school in devotional services in the chapel;
9) Friday evening prayer-meetings of informal worship, probably the most powerful of all services due to the home-like atmosphere;
10) Week of Prayer held for two weeks in January with usually about a hundred and fifty students happily converted who sign the following pledge:
thank God that I was led by the Spirit to accept Christ. I am glad I am a
Christian, and I promise:
l. That, as soon as I can, I will join the church of my choice, and by word and deed help to build up the kingdom of Christ on earth.
2. That I will, daily, think of, or read some portion of the Bible, and will pray, in private each day of my life, closing each prayer with this verse:
Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul;
Break down every idol, cast out every foe:
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow."
11) Bible Training School established in 1893 to prepare students for the Christian ministry.
These students helped the churches
in the community every Sunday and turned in written reports of their work. Every
morning a voluntary prayer meeting was conducted by one of the Bible students.
In addition all the students were organized into companies of twelve to fifteen
with a teacher to counsel them. These social groups made the students feel more
at home and improved discipline.48
Observing that the Negro was religious but that he tended toward emotionalism, Washington sought to educate his people into the higher teachings and to encourage them to make their devotion practical every day in improving their own and their neighbors' lives. Washington believed that the attitude of some that religion was below the educated and independent mind was the greatest error and had no real joy. He discovered in his experience that the leaders in the educational and commercial world and in uplifting the people, were usually religious in their community life.49
Most of all Washington wanted to go beyond the outer helps of Bible study and church attendance to find the inner spiritual experience.
As you value your spiritual life, see to it that you do not lose the spirit of reverence for the Most High as revealed in your own life and experience, reverence for the Most High as revealed in the men and women about you, in the opening flower, the setting sun, and the song of the bird. Do not mistake denominationalism for reverence and religion. Religion is life, denominationalism is an aid to life.... We must get the inner life, the heart right, and we shall then become strong where we have been weak, wise where we have been foolish.50
Washington, then, believed in opening and purifying the heart with the help of the Supreme Being.
Another source of inspiration on the Tuskegee campus was Dr. Washington's informal talks to the students on Sunday evenings. Here he continually encouraged students to choose the higher life of honesty and purity, to see from the "higher-light point of view" and look for the good in a person.51 He pointed out that the person of high character was happy, successful, respected, and loved, while the lower way was hard, miserable, and distrusted, for it is the person with the great big heart who is happy. He counseled them, "Throw open your heart. Say now, 'I am not going to be conquered by little mean thoughts, words and acts any longer. Hereafter all my thoughts, all my words, all my acts, shall be large, generous high, pure."52 The goal of the religious life, for Washington, was to share the character of God, to be one with Him and therefore like Him. To be Christ-like was not to be unnatural, but by living it one could discover the power and helpfulness practically. Washington held that the higher qualities of character were the invisible and eternal qualities that last forever. He described the intangible fruits of this Christ-like way of life:
if those who annually go out from the schools of our great country, wherever
they go, will carry with them something of this healing power, this power that
will cure men merely by letting them come in contact with them, even in the
slightest manner, if they will catch something of the Christ-like spirit, we can
have a heaven, as it were, on earth. I do not believe in waiting for the heaven
of the future. If we imitate the life of Christ as nearly as possible, heaven
will come about more and more right here on earth.
No person can expend any life force without receiving life force in return. When we give out this spirit, something of this healing power, we receive in return more strength for ourselves.53
Washington firmly believed that a
person reaped what he sowed, and therefore suggested putting the most one can
To summarize Washington's solution to the race problem: it was both practical and spiritual. Intrinsic character must be developed from within. No one else can bestow upon a person character, and once achieved, no one can take it away. The Christian way was not to agitate hostilely, but to patiently endure all wrongs while removing one's own faults and impediments. "The race that hates will grow weaker, while the race that loves will grow stronger "54 "No individual of any race can contribute to the solution of any general problem until he has worked out his own peculiar problem.... The despised Negro has then chance to show the world that charity which suffereth long and is kind and which never faileth."55 In The Future of the Negro Washington wrote:
Each race must be educated to see matters in a broad, high, generous, Christian spirit: we must bring the two races together, not estrange them . . The man is unwise who does not cultivate in every manly way the friendship and good will of his next-door neighbor, whether he be black or white.56
Washington did not want to aggravate the race problem, but to heal it in the loving Christian way. In l907 Washington concluded a speech to ministers in Nashville with this suggestion:
If you want to know how to solve the race problem, place your hands upon your heart and then, with a prayer to God, ask Him how you today, were you placed in the position that the black man occupies, how you would desire the white man to treat you, and whenever you have answered that question in the sight of God and man, this problem in a large degree will have been solved.57
By asking whites to see themselves
in the blacks' predicament, Washington was calling for a humanitarian solution
In the light of the difficult conditions that Booker T Washington faced and the efforts that he made to contribute to their solution one can well recognize the reasons for his popularity among the black masses and great influence he had in his time. Rather than demanding that the white race change their ways, he showed how black people could change themselves, overcome obstacles, develop strength of character, and rise by their own effort to honorable positions of respect, and most important, self-esteem. No problem was too lowly to confront and no ambition was too high to attain; but from his own experience, Washington was convinced that one must start at the bottom with a healthy body and a solid economic basis. From this foundation one could grow to the heights without danger of falling as long as one had developed a strong character through intrinsic effort. Theodore Roosevelt gave a realistic appraisal of the man in the context of his times:
He kept his high ideals, always; but he never forgot for a moment that he was living in an actual world of three dimensions, in a world of unpleasant facts, where those unpleasant facts have to be faced; and he made the best possible out of a bad situation from which there was no ideal best to be obtained. And he walked humbly with his God.58
Booker T. Washington struggled up himself and then gave to his people what he felt they needed---education for the skill of hand, light of mind, and honesty of heart.
1. Booker T. Washington, Up from
Slavery, p. 157.
2. Ibid., p. 17. Also The Story of My Life and Work in the Booker T. Washington Papers Volume 1 The Autobiographical Writings (Hereafter BTW Papers Vol. 1) pp. 13-15. From now on parallel references will be given from Up From Slavery with its page numbers since it is the more popular autobiography.
3. Up From Slavery, pp. 19-22.
4. Ibid., p. 24.
5. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 16.
6. Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Representative American Negroes" in The Negro Problem, p. 194.
7. Booker T. Washington, Working With the Hands, pp. 6-10.
8. BTW Papers Vol. 1, 21.
9. Up From Slavery, p. 39.
10. Ibid., p. 51.
11. Booker T. Washington, "Industrial Education for the Negro" in The Negro Problem, p. 20.
12. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 32.
13. Booker T. Washington, "Industrial Education," p. 21.
14. BTW Papers Vol. 1, pp. 38, 47.
15. Ibid., pp. 61-64.
16. Ibid., pp. 69-70. Up From Slavery, p. 145.
17. Up From Slavery, p. 148.
18. Ibid., pp. 156-157.
19. Ibid., p. 158.
20. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 413 from My Larger Education.
21. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 441.
22. See Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington for a critical view of the Black leader.
23. Basil Mathews, Booker T. Washington, p. 293.
24. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 446.
25. Working With the Hands, p. 12.
26. B. T. W. Putting the Most Into Life, p. 9.
27. Ibid., p. 18.
28. Selected Speeches of Booker T. Washington, p. 193, to the Republican Club of New York City, February 12, 1909 (Lincoln's 100th birthday).
29. B. T. W., "Industrial Education for the Negro," p. 9.
30. B. T. W., The Future of the Negro, p. 61.
31. B. T. W., Sowing and Reaping, pp. 27, 29.
32. The Future of the Negro, p. 111.
33. Ibid., p. 111.
34. "Industrial Education for the Negro," pp. 12-18.
35. BTW Papers Vol. 1, p. 31.
36. Ibid., p. 31.
37. Ibid., p. 37.
38. Ibid., p. 43.
39. Ibid., p. 135.
40. Ibid., pp. 138-140.
41. Ibid., p. 142.
42. The Future of the Negro, pp. 125-126.