Let’s face it, Booker T. Washington has a serious image problem. He was perhaps the most influential black man in America during the late 1800s, but is often remembered today as being subservient, a sellout even.
Yes, he pursued racial equality with discretion. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895 cautioned blacks against extremism and encouraged them to prove their worth by becoming productive members of society.
But what about his role as a Presidential adviser, or as the first leader of one of the country’s best historically black colleges? There’s more to Washington’s legacy. Today we’re looking at his influence in education as part of our 50 Great Teachers series.
Back to the Basics
Washington was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856. Early in life he showed an interest in learning to read and write. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War, when he and his mother were freed, that Washington had the chance to get a basic education.
“He got a hold of a Blue Back Speller that helped him learn how to pronounce and spell words,” says historian Raymond W. Smock. The famous schoolbook, written by Noah Webster, was “almost like a Bible lesson, a civic lesson and a reading lesson rolled into one,” says Smock, author of Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow.
At the age of 16, Washington went on to study at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, in Virginia. There he became a star student, catching the attention of Hampton’s founder, General Samuel C. Armstrong.
The founders of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a new black college being built just east of Montgomery, Alabama, asked Armstrong to recommend a white man who could head the school. Armstrong suggested Washington instead. The institute would become a fundamental part of Washington’s legacy.
Educating Blacks in the South
Tuskegee began in 1881 with 30 students in a rundown church and a shanty. Its early buildings were in such bad shape that on rainy days a student had to hold an umbrella over Washington while he lectured.
During the school’s first year, Washington pretty much did everything — he taught most subjects, managed the school and formed strong relationships with locals in black and white communities. He managed to secure enough loans and donations to purchase a 100-acre plantation and build new facilities.
Washington built the institute – quite literally – on the idea that industrial skills would lead blacks to success. As part of a work-study program to pay for room and board, students helped to construct and maintain the school’s new buildings.
This philosophy also transferred to the classroom. In addition to academic basics — history, English and math — each student took up a vocational trade to learn. Women studied housekeeping and sewing, while men worked in areas such as farming, carpentry and brickmaking. Washington regularly held “Sunday Evening Talks,” which he used to reinforce his views on education.
“When you speak to the average person about labor, industrial work, especially, he gets the idea at once that you are opposed to his head’s being educated — that you simply want to put him to work,” he said during one 1895 evening.
“Anybody who knows anything about industrial education, knows that it teaches a person just the opposite — how not to work. It teaches him to make water work for him, to make air, steam and all the forces of nature work for him. That is what is meant by industrial education.”
The Tuskegee Institute attracted attention across the country. Washington never wanted to turn students away, so the school grew quickly and reached approximately 1,000 students by the early 1900s. This was more than all of the white public college students in Alabama combined, said professor Robert Norrell, author of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington.
The Tuskegee Institute is now Tuskegee University, which enrolls more than 3,000 students and offers more than 50 academic degrees.
“[Washington] educated a lot of people,” Norrell says. “He created an institution that became a powerful symbol of black competence, of black success, of black achievement.”
This was an important message to send at the time, Norrell said. And Washington’s willingness to work within the confines of America’s oppressive system contributed to this success.
Washington And DuBois — In Context
Despite his renown, Washington’s perceived allegiance to the status quo strained his relationships with other black leaders, most notably the author and intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois. Both saw education as a gateway to racial equality following the Civil War.
The two first connected in 1894 when Washington offered young DuBois a teaching position at Tuskegee; however, DuBois had already accepted another job. They later collaborated on a 1907 book The Negro in the South, a collection of their lectures given at Philadelphia’s School of Divinity.
Despite this overlap, Washington and DuBois had some key differences, said Dr. Brian Johnson, the seventh president of Tuskegee University. DuBois was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was a writer and a scholar based in the East Coast.
Washington on the other hand, was an educator and businessman, building a black school in the Deep South. Let’s not forgot that this was the Jim Crow era — a time of widespread mob lynchings and the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling from the Supreme Court. Their locations and social standing shaped their opposing views on education and “racial uplift.”
Washington saw the benefit of a gradual process. DuBois wanted more direct, immediate action. Washington pushed for vocational training. DuBois favored collegiate education.
“Education must not simply teach work — it must teach Life,” DuBois famously said.
Washington’s approach was practical for the masses, the children of former slaves. DuBois focused on advancing the “talented tenth,” an exceptional group of African-Americans who would uplift the black community.
The roots of the Washington–DuBois conflict spark debate to this day. What’s the best way to expand higher education access for minorities and other disadvantaged groups? What is the value of the liberal arts versus practical trade skills? Should social justice movements pursue reform through radical or incremental approaches?
And in most of these discussions over the years, Washington has come off the loser.
So is it fair to dismiss him and to glorify DuBois? Brian Johnson argues that we should look at a larger picture rather than putting them into distinct categories.
“This Washington versus DuBois idea has become a political construct,” Johnson says. “Let’s get a more nuanced, richly textured view of history, so that we can understand where they both joined together.”