Has America Forgotten Booker T. Washington?

 

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Carter G. Woodson, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Dubois, Rev. Martin Luther King. All were prominent Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, there’s one prominent American that isn’t included in this pantheon of historical greats. In fact, he’s one of the most underappreciated historical figures in American history.

Born into slavery, he was determined not to allow his past, nor his race, determine his future. He pursued education, emphasized character development and self-determination. He also stressed the obligation and the virtue of­ work.

His ability to transcend enormous hardships saw him literally help build a school from the ground up. Though he repeatedly refused the temptation to become a politician, his record of personal and professional excellence enabled him to advise Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. Despite his extremely modest beginnings, he became an influential black intellectual and one of the foremost educators of his time.

As a result of his influence on Negro education and economic development– in addition to his desire for racial conciliation in the South, he was once called the “foremost man of his race in America.”

Who is this great man?

Booker T. Washington.

Washington was born a slave on a Virginian plantation. Though uncertain of his father’s identity, he suspected it was a white man living on a nearby plantation. His mother Jane raised him, his brother John, and his sister Amanda in a dilapidated slave cabin.

At nine years old, Washington was freed from slavery. He and his family moved to West Virginia to start life anew. Washington desperately longed to attend school, but his stepfather concluded that his son was more valuable to his family working in the local salt mines.

Despite this disappointment, Washington taught himself how to read and write, and attended school periodically. As a teenager working in the mines, he learned of a boarding school– Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia– that specialized in educating poor blacks. Eventually, Washington made his way back to Virginia to pursue his education.

But it wasn’t easy.

Washington had to overcome significant challenges. He walked most of the 500-mile journey back to Virginia. On the way, he slept under a boardwalk at night while working during the day. Upon reaching Virginia, Washington worked his way through school despite being in frequent need of resources like clothing, books, and tuition. Reflecting on his ability to face these and other challenges, Washington believed that “success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

Shortly after graduation, Washington was called upon to begin his life’s work– heading an industrial school for blacks in Alabama– the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

When Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, students were hungry for education. However, they despised work because work was associated with slavery. Washington rejected the connection and stressed the nobility of work. He showed his students that education wasn’t limited to the classroom.

At Tuskegee, students not only learned how to read and write but they also learned trades and other skills that would allow them to contribute to the economy– and the improvement of society. Washington was convinced that education and industry subsidized racial uplift among blacks but also racial respect for blacks. After graduation, it was Washington’s desire for students of character to provide innovative services and skills to their neighbors rather than working for them.

Despite his personal and professional record of achievement, Washington doesn’t receive the approbation he deserves. Why is Booker T. Washington excluded from the giants of black– and American– history?

It’s because of a speech he gave at the Atlanta Exposition, in September 1895, which has derisively become known as “Atlanta Compromise.”

At the time of the speech, racial hostility toward blacks in the south was increasing. Darwinian ideas about black inferiority were spreading. Racial stereotypes disparaging black humanity– in newspapers and minstrel shows– were widely embraced.

Klan violence– including lynching– grew more pervasive. Black economic opportunities and legal protections had rapidly decreased. Racial segregation had become an unforgiving reality.

Increasing racial tension led to suggestions by both blacks and whites that American blacks should resettle in Africa.

It was in this cultural caldron that Washington gave his remarks– a practical appeal to anxious southern whites and vulnerable southern blacks.

Washington affirmed in his address that blacks would forgo the pursuit of political power. He hoped this would alleviate the racial anxiety toward– and resentment of– blacks, among whites. In exchange, Washington recommended that whites not prevent blacks from seeking economic prosperity. Consequently, he exhorted the audience– filled with a mixture of blacks and whites– to “cast down your bucket where you are,” encouraging a mutual, socio-economic interdependency among the races in the South.

Booker was convinced that economic development and success would counter the myth of black inferiority and earn blacks the respect of their southern neighbors. To this extent, he believed that “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”

To further allay the suspicions of southern whites, Washington added that blacks and whites could be “separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand” – a social agreement that he felt was “essential to human progress” in the South.

Was Washington’s speech a compromise? Yes, but it was a very calculated and essential one that Washington felt necessary to protect the physical safety and economic interests of blacks.

But Washington’s compromise has been intentionally mischaracterized as capitulation– a form of accommodation to white supremacy because he rejected political protest and agitation as the primary tool for black advancement and civil rights.

Washington’s belief was that the transcendent values of personal responsibility– good character, hard work, education, and self-determination were what first gained respect. Accordingly, freedom and equality would follow.

Sadly, Washington misjudged the racial hatred of southern whites. Subsequently, his vision of racial cooperation didn’t happen as he anticipated.

However, Washington’s advice is certainly needed now.

Though constructive political activism can be a useful tool for American blacks, it cannot be the only tool. American blacks can and should establish their ability to control what they’re able to control, to achieve that which they’re capable of achieving. This must be done on their own terms and with as little intercession or interference as possible.

By controlling their fate, blacks will establish equality with their peers.

In doing so, blacks must steadfastly reject the “special privileges” associated with the hard bigotry of no expectations. Fabricating “equity” on behalf of blacks reveals an absence of standards and expectations with respect to black intelligence and capability– be it in socio-economic, academic, and moral capacities. In fact, “equity” is racism by another name.

Washington had faith in both America and the ability of blacks to excel. It’s time for blacks to demonstrate that same faith.

Because of his sacrifices, accomplishments, and agenda for success, Booker T. Washington should be reinstated– and celebrated– as one of the prominent Americans in our nation’s history.

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  1. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Thank you for an excellent post. I was familiar with most of his story, but you filled in some very interesting details about this thoroughly admirable man.

    • #1
  2. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    This is critically important and helpful information and should be elevated to the Main Feed.

    • #2
  3. DonG (Keep on Truckin) Coolidge
    DonG (Keep on Truckin)
    @DonG

    Derryck Green: He pursued education, emphasized character development and self-determination. He also stressed the obligation and the virtue of­ work.

    Same as the Puritans, which makes him an ideal American.  Booker T. is also a very cool name.

    • #3
  4. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    DonG (Keep on Truckin) (View Comment):

    Derryck Green: He pursued education, emphasized character development and self-determination. He also stressed the obligation and the virtue of­ work.

    Same as the Puritans, which makes him an ideal American. Booker T. is also a very cool name.

    Sad to say that if he lived today, Joe Biden would be hooking him up with a crack pipe.  How our country has fallen…

    • #4
  5. Shauna Hunt Coolidge
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    Thank you for another fabulous article. It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. I also agree with Gary–it should definitely go to the Main Feed.

    • #5
  6. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Great post!

    I forget where, but at some point I had read up on Booker T. Washington, and I was impressed.  A man for men to admire.

    Now MLK and the rest of the non-violence crowd who won in the sixties are joining Washington on the pile of reviled rights leaders insufficiently militant for today’s bloodthirsty reparations and humiliation crew.

    You (all) of course know the tune “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.s   I had to look this up to get my facts straight, but I was right (or close enough): “Booker T.” in the band’s name is front man Booker T. Jones Junior, named for his father, in turn named in honor of Booker T. Washington.  Jones (it turns out) co-wrote that smash hit while still in High School.  And the band may have been the first mainstream “integrated” act, with two black and two white members in their heyday.

    I recall something like a Schoolhouse Rock thing with the line “faster than you can say Booker T. Washington!”

     

    • #6
  7. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Excellent.  He’s my favorite of the Civil Rights leaders.  Thanks for a great write up.  I never understood why he was rejected by the other black leaders, other than he was not as confrontational as they.  You did fill that in and perhaps he was in retrospect too soft.  But still his core advice of seeking education and a work ethic is spot on, for everyone.

    • #7
  8. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Captivating post, Derryck Green. Is there a biography of him you especially like?

    • #8
  9. Derryck Green Member
    Derryck Green
    @DerryckGreen

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Captivating post, Derryck Green. Is there a biography of him you especially like?

    Thank you, Ansonia. The one I really like, besides Booker’s own, is “Up From History-The Life of Booker T. Washington” by Robert J. Norrell. It’s phenomenal. 

    • #9
  10. Derryck Green Member
    Derryck Green
    @DerryckGreen

    Manny (View Comment):

    Excellent. He’s my favorite of the Civil Rights leaders. Thanks for a great write up. I never understood why he was rejected by the other black leaders, other than he was not as confrontational as they. You did fill that in and perhaps he was in retrospect too soft. But still his core advice of seeking education and a work ethic is spot on, for everyone.

    He was mostly rejected because of black intellectuals in the north, particularly WEB DuBois. These men had no idea what daily life was like in the south and the increasing violence blacks faced – specifically because southern whites were afraid of political agitation. Booker, behind the scenes, donated to civil rights politics. But he didn’t want blacks dependent on that; he wanted black personal and economic self-sufficiency. 

    • #10
  11. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    Of note, I think, is the fact that all of the individuals you name to start this article embodied the virtues Washington prized. 

    • #11
  12. Quintus Sertorius Coolidge
    Quintus Sertorius
    @BillGollier

    Thanks so much for the great write up!! Actually taught Booker T Washington in class today. Interesting side bar on that discussion….I was discussing how Booker T Washington has been pushed to the back or underground as well as those who were of the same philosophy. As an experiment I asked who Clarence Thomas and Condeleza Rice were…..keep in mind all these students have been to diversity trainings throughout the U.S……nobody knew them…nobody….they all knew Ibrim X Kendi as if there was a doubt. 

    One more sidebar….I was teaching Jason Riley’s book Maverick to seniors last semester…..was asked by administration  if I was teaching the other side since Dr Sowell is so controversial…….I then asked if I was teaching W E Dubois or Ibrim X Kendi would you ask me if I was teaching Thomas Sowell…..the answer was no. I then told them I will not  be renewing my contract next year……that was the last straw for me….I’m out….been teaching for 30 years…saw this coming in the 90’s but never thought it would be like this……

    • #12
  13. StChristopher Member
    StChristopher
    @JohnBerg

    I read his autobiography over the summer.  He’s an American hero.

    • #13
  14. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Great post!

    I think he got pushed aside when Alexander Hamilton started identifying as black.

    • #14
  15. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    I can’t fully explain or defend this, but I have an opinion. I really wish education in this country would focus on how blacks got hosed over during the reconstruction. Then go into much more detail like this post does about all of the dynamics up to the Martin Luther King era. The good and the bad. One example. The interstate highway system really hosed black neighborhoods. Blacks took the brunt of the development dislocation. Totally unfair. Blacks have had their human and financial capital just stomped on over and over. I would also like to know more about the heroes and the very productive like Harriet Tubman.

    • #15
  16. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Derryck Green (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Captivating post, Derryck Green. Is there a biography of him you especially like?

    Thank you, Ansonia. The one I really like, besides Booker’s own, is “Up From History-The Life of Booker T. Washington” by Robert J. Norrell. It’s phenomenal.

    You prompt me to pull my copy of  Up from Slavery off the shelf to reread this month.

    • #16
  17. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    In fact, “equity” is racism by another name.

    This is spot-on.  For anybody to be told “you can’t do it yourself, you can only succeed by us helping you” is the sheerest form of condescension.  Despite the evidence streaming into our eyeballs, that anybody can and will succeed if they’re willing to work, we still cling, bitterly, to the thing that lessens us, and provides some aging clowns in politics a job.

    • #17
  18. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Quintus Sertorius (View Comment):

    Thanks so much for the great write up!! Actually taught Booker T Washington in class today. Interesting side bar on that discussion….I was discussing how Booker T Washington has been pushed to the back or underground as well as those who were of the same philosophy. As an experiment I asked who Clarence Thomas and Condeleza Rice were…..keep in mind all these students have been to diversity trainings throughout the U.S……nobody knew them…nobody….they all knew Ibrim X Kendi as if there was a doubt.

    One more sidebar….I was teaching Jason Riley’s book Maverick to seniors last semester…..was asked by administration if I was teaching the other side since Dr Sowell is so controversial…….I then asked if I was teaching W E Dubois or Ibrim X Kendi would you ask me if I was teaching Thomas Sowell…..the answer was no. I then told them I will not be renewing my contract next year……that was the last straw for me….I’m out….been teaching for 30 years…saw this coming in the 90’s but never thought it would be like this……

    If you can’t teach Sowell, the system is broken.  That’s insane

    No room for him at this inn, apparently.

    • #18
  19. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    In fact, “equity” is racism by another name.

    This is spot-on. For anybody to be told “you can’t do it yourself, you can only succeed by us helping you” is the sheerest form of condescension. Despite the evidence streaming into our eyeballs, that anybody can and will succeed if they’re willing to work, we still cling, bitterly, to the thing that lessens us, and provides some aging clowns in politics a job.

    I just want to give people something to think about. I’m not totally sure it’s right. Minnesota is absolutely expert at being last in racial disparities. We have all of the wealth and progressive power you could ever want, and they continue to screw it up. The new one is, we lead in real estate racial disparities. Health disparities. Education disparities. The really fun one is, even though Mississippi is statistically the worst place to live, blacks are actually better off there.

    You might want to consider moving to a more libertarian area or something. Statistically, it’s something to think about but I can’t say what is going on exactly.

    • #19
  20. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I think the speech was an enormous mistake and dead wrong.  It was in effect saying that blacks would be willingly relegated to being non-citizens within the country of their birth. 

    Economic uplift is all to the good, but it should be accompanied by civic uplift as well.  That path forward was with education, as Washington understood. But giving up on the right to vote, which he essentially saying, was a mistake. 

    It would be half a century later before all of this was revisited. Two world wars and the emergence of a much larger black middle class with the possibility of white politicians being able to forge different coalitions were determinative. But it could have been done earlier.

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    This is the kind of Black History Month lesson our children should be getting . . .

    • #21
  22. GlenEisenhardt Coolidge
    GlenEisenhardt
    @GlenEisenhardt

    The anti-racists will get around to cancelling or removing black people who had any great achievement soon enough. They fly in the face of the systemic racism nonsense they push. So they can’t have black people of consequence around. Any black person who made it will be called an uncle tom because only a black person who sells out to the white supremacist power structure can make it. That is the narrative that is coming. 

    • #22
  23. DonG (Keep on Truckin) Coolidge
    DonG (Keep on Truckin)
    @DonG

    RufusRJones (View Comment):
    I can’t fully explain or defend this, but I have an opinion. I really wish education in this country would focus on how blacks got hosed over during the reconstruction.

    Wait, the Reconstruction Period was good.  The Union army occupied the South and enforced some rights.   Right after the end of the war, the freed slaves had marketable skills.  For a short period there was a boom of bakeries, blacksmiths, …  There were blacks elected to office!  Then, when Reconstruction ended as part of the corrupt bargain, all the oppression happened.  Blacks were forbidden from conducting business, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, the KKK.  Very bad times.

    • #23
  24. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    DonG (Keep on Truckin) (View Comment):

    RufusRJones (View Comment):
    I can’t fully explain or defend this, but I have an opinion. I really wish education in this country would focus on how blacks got hosed over during the reconstruction.

    Wait, the Reconstruction Period was good. The Union army occupied the South and enforced some rights. Right after the end of the war, the freed slaves had marketable skills. For a short period there was a boom of bakeries, blacksmiths, … There were blacks elected to office! Then, when Reconstruction ended as part of the corrupt bargain, all the oppression happened. Blacks were forbidden from conducting business, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, the KKK. Very bad times.

    Right. I don’t exactly know how to talk about this.

    • #24
  25. Derryck Green Member
    Derryck Green
    @DerryckGreen

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    Thank you for another fabulous article. It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. I also agree with Gary–it should definitely go to the Main Feed.

    Thank you, Shauna!

    • #25
  26. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Derryck Green (View Comment):

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    Thank you for another fabulous article. It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. I also agree with Gary–it should definitely go to the Main Feed.

    Thank you, Shauna!

    Annnnnnnd there it is!

    • #26
  27. Derryck Green Member
    Derryck Green
    @DerryckGreen

    RufusRJones (View Comment):

    DonG (Keep on Truckin) (View Comment):

    RufusRJones (View Comment):
    I can’t fully explain or defend this, but I have an opinion. I really wish education in this country would focus on how blacks got hosed over during the reconstruction.

    Wait, the Reconstruction Period was good. The Union army occupied the South and enforced some rights. Right after the end of the war, the freed slaves had marketable skills. For a short period there was a boom of bakeries, blacksmiths, … There were blacks elected to office! Then, when Reconstruction ended as part of the corrupt bargain, all the oppression happened. Blacks were forbidden from conducting business, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, the KKK. Very bad times.

    Right. I don’t exactly know how to talk about this.

    @rufusrjones, @dong Reconstruction was much too short. Some scholars label it a 10-11 period; others 13-14 years. But there were many advances in the quality-of-life of the recently freed blacks during that time, including, as Rufus notes, blacks elected to Congress on Republican tickets.

    Many things happened to cut this period short, including the resurgence of Southern Democrats in Congress, some Republicans who objected to civil rights/freedom for blacks, and the eventual Supreme Court decision to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875– calling it “unconstitutional.” This opinion crippled the federal government’s ability to reconstruct Southern society by undermining sections of the 13th and 14th Amendments.  Power reverted to the Democrat-controlled southern states (their “states’ rights”), which started a new era of oppression for blacks living in the American South under Jim Crow segregation.

    If American history were taught properly, especially with respect to the longstanding tradition of Democrats standing against the freedom and autonomy of American blacks, very few people aside from postmodern white progressives would still support such a demonstrably evil party.

    • #27
  28. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Thanks @derryckgreen

     

    People need to get it fixed in their heads how black people’s human capital and financial capital absolutely got stomped on. Slavery is bad enough, but the least we could do is get the hell out of their way like we did everybody else. It’s just disgusting.

    Like I said, people need to know all of that cold, and they need to know about the heroes and the really productive people and localities or groups. Then also the terrible policies like what happened with the interstate system.

     

     

    • #28
  29. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    Thank you very much for this.  I have known of Booker T. before, but not this part.  I can only think that he and the others on your list would be very depressed seeing what is happening now to their lessons.

    I have to admit, I don’t know who Carter G. Woodson was – do you have any recommendations to learn more?

    • #29
  30. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    I have been mentioning the 7th grade reader from 1993-94 that I picked up at a garage sale.

    It contained a brief biographical account of Booker Washington, as well as a fictionalized story of his laboratory  work on peanuts.

    I wonder if any current day 7th grade readers here in Calif wax eloquent on Booker’s life and times. I hope that is the case.

    But it is a case that doesn’t fit in with the idea that there should be a quota based equality of outcome, predicated only through statistics on percentages of race vs whether those percentages are reflected in academic positions or not.

     

     

     

    • #30
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