Adapted from Booker T. Washington – Getting into the Schoolhouse, Journey to Freedom,
and Booker T. Washington – Innovative Educator Background: After the Civil War (1861-1865), the slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment. But what the former slaves experienced over the next two decades was anything but freedom. Former slaves had agricultural experience, but no land. They had few resources and skills to build economic power. Although there were short term gains in political and social power, over the long term southern state and local governments returned African Americans to slave-like status: they were restricted from voting, they were denied access to public and private facilities through segregation laws, and they were often only hired to the lowest paying and lowest status jobs. Obviously, African Americans wanted better lives, but what were the best strategies to use to create change? Some white southerners were fearful of and strongly against allowing African Americans to increase their power. Booker T. Washington became a central figure in the debate about how much power and how many rights African Americans would have.
Childhood and Early Life
Booker did not experience much freedom in his early life in as a slave in Virginia. He was owned by the Burroughs family. He often worked in and around their house doing chores, running errands, and swatting flies during mealtimes. He carried the books of the Burrough’s children to school for them. He got a glimpse of their freedom when he peered into their classrooms. Booker called it “paradise.” At age nine, in 1865, he and his family were told by a visitor to their plantation that the Civil War was over. He and his family could leave and go wherever they wanted to go. With this newfound opportunity, Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to live with his stepfather Washington Ferguson. Freedom would still prove elusive to Booker as his stepfather put him to work in the salt and coal mines. Yet, he was permitted to attend a new school set up for African Americans provided that he worked in the mines from 4 to 9 am. It was at this school that he adopted his stepfather’s first name as his last name. Also, his mother told him about his given name “Booker Taliaferro.” From this point on, he was known as Booker T. Washington.
By age 15, Washington had advanced far enough in school to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia. This was a school designed to teach vocational skills and personal discipline to African Americans; it was here that Washington further developed a philosophy that he would carry throughout his professional life, one that would guide his decisions at each turn. Washington strongly believed in the “dignity of labor.” He felt that if African Americans were taught the skills to live independent lives, they would develop self-respect and pride. Even further, Washington held that African Americans who worked hard and did not agitate for rights would not seem as threatening to the white community, but instead would impress the white community with their skills and commitment. Eventually, Washington reasoned, African Americans would be granted rights and gain freedoms not previously enjoyed.
After teaching back in Malden for four years after he graduated and at the Hampton Institute itself starting in 1879, Washington seized upon a new opportunity. Leaders in Alabama wanted to start a school for African Americans. They sought the advice of the principal of Hampton for someone to lead it. The principal told the men that Booker T. Washington would not disappoint them. Washington created the school, which he opened with 30 students on July 4, 1881, in Tuskegee, Alabama from the ground up. At the start, the Tuskegee Institute was only a small collection of sheds and a church building, but over time Washington raised money to construct new buildings, literally brick by brick as his students learned to find the best clay on the grounds, form the bricks, fire them in the kiln, haul them to the site, and lay them in place. Not only did they create bricks for the school, but by 1900, they manufactured enough high quality bricks to sell them throughout the country. In fact, this work was part of Washington’s big idea. Students learned skills, along side some traditional academic classes in mathematics and English, and worked at the Institute to pay their way through school. Over time, students learned skills in many disciplines, such as carpentry and shoe making. Washington wanted students to return home with job skills which would translate into food and shelter. These were things he felt the African American community needed most; gradually, he believed, segregation would end and civil rights would come.
The “Atlanta Compromise”
Hoping to get businessmen in the north to invest their money and do business in the south, some people organized a big event in Atlanta to show off the progress the south had made since the Civil War. The event was called the “Cotton States and International Exhibition.” By 1895, Washington had gained prominence as the leader of Tuskegee Institute. Since both the black and white communities in the south knew him and what he stood for, the organizers of the exhibition felt that he could represent the south and impress the north. The organizers knew it was a radical move to allow a black man to speak to a nearly all white audience at such an important occasion; in fact this was the first time it happened in the segregated south.
As he prepared, Washington understood that one speech would not change segregation laws or the culture of violence, including lynching and house burning, waged against the black community. But Washington felt that he could convey to the audience the importance of education and job opportunities for black men and women without being seen as a troublemaker trying to change too much too fast. In his speech, later called the “Atlanta Compromise” because some people believed that Washington did not push for all the things the black community wanted, Washington held up his hand with his fingers spread out and said, “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers.” He then added, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” as he closed his hand into a fist. People from the north and south applauded his speech because it calmed their fears. Northern white men wanted to invest in the growing economy of the south, but they were worried about racial tensions disrupting the economy. Southern white men were happy that Washington did not publicly attack segregation laws and encourage black men and women to push for civil rights.
Effects of Washington’s Speech
Washington was viewed as a black leader that the white community could trust. He was far less controversial than Frederick Douglass, who had died just that year. Over time, this perspective assisted Washington as he traveled around the United States giving speeches. His main goal was to raise money for Tuskegee. The better off Tuskegee was, Washington reasoned, the more people could be trained for jobs which would lead to more stable communities. More black families in these communities could lead independent and dignified lives while “peacefully and patiently work [their] way into white communities.”
Since the speech in Atlanta, Washington raised millions of dollars for Tuskegee. He wrote articles and books, including his 1901 autobiography entitled, Up from Slavery. Some of the wealthiest white Americans who read his book, including George Eastman who made cameras, and Andrew Carnegie who made steel, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Tuskegee. Washington also founded the National Negro Business League in 1900 to promote black-owned small businesses. During the twenty years after his speech in Atlanta in 1895, Washington was invited to the White House to meet with three presidents (McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft) and even traveled to England to visit with Queen Elizabeth. It was incredibly controversial for a black man to be depicted as an equal to these leaders, especially when he was shown in newspapers dining with some of them at the same table. Washington was seen as the spokesperson for African Americans. But, by 1910, not all members of the black community agreed with Washington’s strategies or the supposed progress Washington had created.
Washington saw freedom and equality as something African Americans should earn over time. Washington did not want African Americans to demonstrate or otherwise push for equal rights. They should be trained to get jobs, aided by white Americans, so they could live comfortable lives. By working within the system instead of attempting to change the system, it was hoped that over many years they would gain more respect and more rights.
Yet the reality did not match these hopes nationwide: Between 1900 and 1914, there were at least 1,000 lynchings of black people in the United States. By 1914, many southern states had changed their constitutions to include poll taxes and literacy tests, in essence making it harder for black men to vote. In 1912, President Taft fired all black men from jobs they held in the U.S. Postal Service. Many black men and women had the lowest paying and lowest status jobs without much hope of advancing. It was clear that black men were not gaining enough social, political, and economic power to become equal to white men.
Someone who sharply criticized Washington was W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois had grown up in the north after the Civil War and away from slavery. He felt that it was wrong to tolerate segregation laws. He saw Washington’s approach as passive, letting the white community have the power and not feeling afraid of change. In 1910, DuBois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to directly fight for civil rights by challenging the legality of segregation laws.
Some have seen Washington as a radical, someone who promotes a great deal of change in a short time: He used the Hampton model and changed the system of education for black men and women. He was the first black man in the south to speak to a largely white audience; he used this platform to advance his agenda. Would Tuskegee have grown and influenced as many lives without the influx of white money? In some cases, whole buildings were paid for by wealthy doners. Others have called him a moderate, someone trying to promote change only within the system by appeasing people in power and not threatening them. He did not speak out against a violent lynching case in Georgia or the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases which gave African Americans less power, but he publicly praised the contributions of black soldiers and pushed for more opportunities for them and called racial prejudice a “cancer gnawing at the heart of the Republic.”