By Mr. J.D. Meyer…Juneteenth 2005/Revised: Juneteenth 2008
First, it’s very doubtful that I would have discovered Booker T. Washington if it wasn’t for primary resources on the Internet. In other words, third-rate historians who pass judgment while withholding evidence from the reader have obscured the real writings of BTW. Thus BTW is “ a figure more often caricatured than understood,” to quote Thomas Sowell et al’s article, “Up from Slavery,” based on Washington’s autobiography with the same name. BTW has been unfairly and illogically labeled as an Uncle Tom for emphasizing vocational education near the turn of the 20th Century. Yet in “The Awakening of the Negro,” Washington stated that if a Black owned the mortgage on a White’s house, then that White couldn’t prevent the Black from voting. In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington admitted, “How often I have wanted to say to white students that they lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others, and the more unfortunate the race, and the lower in the scale of civilization, the more does one raise one’s self by giving the assistance.”
Washington’s greatest speech (1895) was praised by many but maligned by some
as the Atlanta Compromise rather than the Atlanta Exposition address. It was the first speech by an African-American before an integrated audience in this country. This was a time when 100 Blacks/year were being lynched. Reconstruction was long over, having only lasted from 1865-1877. Furthermore, a conquering army had imposed Reconstruction.
In his later years, Mr. Washington admitted that if his Atlanta Exposition had been unsuccessful, it could have shattered the cause for Black advancement for years. Instead, the governor of Georgia ran across the room to shake BTW’s hand and offer congratulation. President Grover Cleveland mailed a letter of praise to BTW. The climate around the turn of the 20th Century was so tense that President Theodore Roosevelt was criticized for having lunch with Mr. Washington. It was even the topic of cruel newspaper cartoons. If you think that a call for crossbow manufacturing was overlooked, then you forgot what happened to the Black Panthers for their assertion of their American right to bear arms.
This presentation will examine the Atlanta Exposition Address, a talk that is a
component of Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery. Then we’ll have an
overview of “The Awakening of the Negro.” Our first reading is from “Black Race, Red Race,” reflections on Washington’s early career as the dorm supervisor of Native Americans at his alma mater, Hampton College. We will end with the article that significantly shaped my views on African-American history, “Keeping the Spotlight on Failure,” by Elizabeth Wright, and a chilling indictment of how many teach Black history to be little more than slavery, freedom, civil rights movement, and integration. There were plenty of great economic and institutional success stories individual and group, before the civil right movement and desegregation. Wright and many like her are philosophical heirs to Booker T. Washington, and their work can be found at websites like Issues-Views.com and Booker Rising.com
Excerpt from “Black Race and Red Race”—BTW
Six years after graduating from Hampton Institute, General Armstrong, the
President of Hampton, invited Booker T. Washington to be the dorm director for a
group of Native American males. Hampton is still one of the leading HBCU’s
“There was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure. All this makes me proceed very cautiously, for I felt the keen responsibility. But I was determined to succeed. It was not long before I had the complete confidence of the Indians, and not only this, but I think I am safe in saying that I had their love and respect. I found that they were about like any other human beings; that they responded to kind treatment and resented ill treatment. They were continually planning to do something that would add to my happiness and comfort. The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.”
The Atlanta Exposition Address
Why did BTW feel that vocational education was so important? First, because the
Talented Tenth that WEB DuBois wanted to nurture was just that—the 10% of any
population that can become doctors, lawyers, and the like. BTW chose to reach the black masses. As the first president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington seized the opportunity to do just that. The practical education movement at Tuskegee was paralleled at white colleges like my alma mater, Texas A&M University, because of the Morrill Act of 1862. This act provided for state funding for universities in each state to specialize in the sciences of agriculture, engineering, and more.
Thus, there is nothing demeaning in not gambling on replacing one’s archeology professor. For as, Booker T. Washington contended in Atlanta at the Exposition Address, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”BTW opened the Atlanta Exposition Address by stating that the event was the greatest thing to happen between the races in the thirty years since the end of slavery. Then he admitted that the awkwardness of Reconstruction. The newly freed slaves began at the top instead of the bottom and blacks sought a political position rather than “real estate or industrial skills” or “starting a dairy farm or truck garden.”
On the other hand, subsequent research revealed to me that at least some to those African-Americans who ascended to political power truly were competent—like Matthew Gaines of Brenham, Texas. Mr. Gaines was instrumental in the founding of Texas A&M to the extent that a movement led by Aggie Republicans like my former philosophy professor, Richard Stadelmann, wanted to have a statue of Gaines erected on the campus.
Washington’s bold call to both races was “Cast your buckets down where you
are.” At that time, it meant for blacks not to give up on America and sail back to Africa. For whites, it meant not to expect foreign immigrants to be the answer to economic expansion because of the loyalty shown by African-Americans over the centuries. Suggesting anything to whites back then was quite bold. Yet perhaps the latter was one of Washington’s most peculiar contentions as there had been brutal slave uprisings, sometimes with white abolitionist assistance, as noted in WEB DuBois’s critiques of BTW. Perhaps Mr. Washington was hinting that black uprisings could have been a lot more frequent or worse in an off-hand (even clever passive aggressive) way.
Let’s jump back to the Back to Africa movement. It was extremely influential at
the turn of the century until 1920. Marcus Garvey was its most famous proponent and the leader of the largest black movement in history. Martin Delany, the first African-American field officer and a medical doctor, was another key figure. However, Delany changed his mind about the Back to Africa movement and leaned toward South America before his change as well. Dr. Delany has the peculiar distinction of almost being lynched by a white mob in a Northern border state before the Civil War; then he was almost lynched by an angry black mob because he supported an ex-Confederate officer who supported vocational education for African-Americans.
One of the most surprising aspects of this twisted by emotion era in American history for me is that some of the finest men fighting for black rights were the slave masters’ sons, as opposed to uneducated white competing for jobs open to ex-slaves apart from the BTW or DuBois game plan. Always looking at both sides of any issue, Washington admonished blacks not to sink into resentment over the atrocities of slavery because that would bog down progress.
Thus, the central theme of the Atlanta Exposition Address was that “there is no defense or security for any of us except in the development of the highest intelligence of all.” He waved aside already lost causes for his generation such as racial integration offering his example of as being “separate like fingers yet one in the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He never renounced equal rights under the law but noted, “The ability to earn a dollar in a factory was more important than the right to spend it at an opera house.” BTW observed that as one-third of the population of the South, blacks could be a force for progress or stagnation, depending on whether blacks took the opportunities that were given, or had opportunities denied them, or simply blundered away chances. Thus,
BTW was able to link the fate of both races by connecting rights and responsibilities.
So how different were Washington and DuBois? Less than what it is popularly
assumed today, and at one time, they were close allies. DuBois did view the Atlanta Exposition as something of a sell-out. DuBois proved to be right in noting that without political rights, African-Americans could not protect what they had earned. Yet DuBois failed to see that part of Washington’s program of vocational education proved to be the beginning of the modern science of agriculture. Building construction was another area of training in all phases from bricklaying to carpentry to architecture.
After Washington’s death, it was discovered that he secretly donated to civil rights causes. Ultimately, Washington praised whites of good will while DuBois verbally attacked whites of ill will. Washington received substantial financial contributions for Tuskegee Institute as its president. DuBois lived to be 95 (1868-1963) while Washington didn’t make it to 60 (1858-1915). Admittedly, the savagery of white backlash over black success and BTW’s relentless speaking and work schedule may have driven him to an early grave. On the other hand, poor DuBois was subjected to an FBI investigation for his socialist leanings, and he moved to Ghana to spend the last years of his life with Kwame Nkrumah, its first president and a Pan-African giant.
Yet DuBois shared the fears of Washington that if whites lost their prejudices
overnight, much of the ignorant masses of blacks would stay down through using
prejudice as an excuse or drift into “indifferent listlessness or reckless bravado.” In short, you could not imagine a more effective early leader for African-Americans than BTW. His ability to point toward quiet economic success as a prerequisite for the achievements of later generations was essential and tragically unappreciated. There wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights’ Movement if some African-Americans hadn’t risen to middle-class stature. Likewise, my new T-shirt says Martin Luther King’s dream is being realized in Barack Obama’s message of change.
The Awakening of the Negro
Washington’s vision of practical education included witnessing the opposite. Once he saw a young man studying French grammar in a run-down shack, and another time, BTW saw a young lady playing a rented piano in a run-down shack. Washington responded to the objections that would surface later anyway: a young black has the right to study French or the piano. But in those troubled poverty-stricken days right after slavery, a more practical alternative was needed. Washington earned his degree at Hampton College—a model for Tuskegee. Washington was “surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and cause me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.”
Washington saw the cardinal needs for African American as, “food, clothing,
shelter, education, proper habits, and a settlement of race relations,” a list that reminds me of the basic needs according to Abraham Maslow. Furthermore, Washington believed that training of strong young people in the “head, hand, and heart” would lift up the race from within better than missionary efforts launched from afar. By learning industrial or hand training, the young African-American could move up from their status at that time. Three other factors stood out: (1) the student could pay for some of his tuition; (2) the school called for a job that required skill; (3) the industrial system teaches “economy, thrift, the dignity of labor” and gives “moral backbone” to students. Such a student gains a “certain confidence and moral independence” when he is “conscious of his power to build a house or wagon or to make a harness.”
It is easy to update these practical suggestions for our century. Obviously,
residential and business construction is still leading fields, and the automobile or truck has replaced the wagon and the harness for the horse. But we need to add computer skills to our list of confidence-imparting practical skills. I am one of many who have the power to search the Internet, type rapidly and save the information on a computer or on a disc, insert tables, dabble with contrasting fonts, and make a Power Point. I could get off-task and ramble indefinitely about the new practical professions that exist today but were not present at the time of BTW.
Mr. Washington’s vision of industrial education was “how to put brains into every process of labor… (Therefore) much of the toil is eliminated and labor is dignified.” Tuskegee had a staggering total of 650 acres of land for agriculture: cattle and vegetables. At this time, 85% of African-Americans in the South worked in agriculture. Furthermore, Tuskegee graduates taught rural blacks how to save money, get out of debt, and buy their own house. Keeping isolated schools open more often was another typical goal. Older adults organized local clubs or conferences, and the Tuskegee Negro Conference was held every February, bringing 800 people together from all over the Black Belt. Besides the Tuskegee Negro Conference for the masses, BTW started a simultaneous gathering called The Workers’ Conference. The Workers’ Conference brought together instructors and administrators from the leading black schools of the South. By having these conferences at the same time, the laborers and educators were able to learn from each other.
What was the strategy behind Washington’s focus on industrial education? It was
to improve race relations through empowering blacks to produces something the white “wants or respects in the commercial world.” Furthermore, the white would become partly dependent on the black and less able to deny his political rights.
One of the greatest evils of the slave system is that it warped the work ethic. The white master did not work but was the ideal—the idle rich. Another evil was that slavery discouraged labor-saving machinery. Blacks worked but under protest. All of these strange quirks led to the Southern habit of putting off repairs until tomorrow. Thus the Tuskegee influence bettered all society—not just black. The South evolved from exporting its cash crop—cotton—in exchange for food supplies, to a society with diversified agriculture.
Keeping the Spotlight on Failure
Elizabeth Wright refutes the notion that blacks achieved little before integration in this fine article. The result of conditioning blacks into such thinking leads them to having a negative opinion of black businessmen and institutions while accepting the guidance of the elite without question. The perpetrators of this view are the black elite and white liberals. She cites no less than nine successful African-American entrepreneurs who lived between 1840—1930; some even lived before the Civil War.
Wright notes that during Booker T. Washington’s heyday, blacks had a better spirit of entrepreneurship, optimism, and pragmatism. It was accepted that economic change would precede changes in the laws. Getting bogged down theory or dwelling on victimization would divert one from making money. Furthermore, the Tuskegee Movement provided moral encouragement as well as technical assistance. Frequently, Washington and his colleagues would go into the rural areas and show poor blacks how to get out of debt, save their money, keep grade schools open more often, and become homeowners.
After the end of BTW’s influence, progress was no longer due to the individual’s effort and enterprise but the result of a group of civil rights leaders. The title that Ms. Wright chose for this article was actually borrowed from Mr. Washington himself. He noted that there were already black leaders in his time that wanted to remind their followers of sad stuff to keep them loyal but depressed and good whites feeling guilty. Nevertheless, I’d like to interject that it’s essential to examine each view in order to have a balanced view of African-American social/intellectual history. Without legal protection, successful black communities like Tulsa suffered wholesale destruction with no recourse, and lynchings got worse when African-Americans became more successful in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. Ironically, the Tuskegee machine was far from democratic and often crushed opposition from other black scholars.
Overall, I still endorse Ms. Wright’s view of African-American history with its
endorsement of Booker T. Washington as the more valid model. For example, the GI bill enabled many black World War II veterans to go to college, become more successful economically, and influence legal change. Perhaps the current young hustlers carry on some of that BTW style attitude concerning the importance of “make money first”; however, there’s all too often a spirit of Machiavellianism and a frequent idolization of gangsters. Obviously, black-on-black crime has never been worse, especially violent crime. John McWhorter observes a counterproductive anti-intellectual spirit in today’s youth also. Washington endorsed putting scientific skill into trades like agriculture, and he never negated that a “talented tenth” would go into professions like medicine and the law. But BTW did note that it’s more important to be able to make a dollar than spend it
in the theater of your choice.
Let’s look at some of those entrepreneurs cited in Ms. Wright’s article. First, she mentions Martin Delany (1812-1885) of West Virginia, hailed as the “Malcolm X of the 19th Century.” I mentioned a bit of history earlier in this essay. Dr. Delany was the first black field officer and medical doctor. He also was a book and magazine author who wrote non-fiction and fiction. Dr. Delany wrote for Frederick Douglass’s journal, the North Star. Charles and Ana Spaulding founded the Mutual Life Insurance Company of Durham, North Carolina at the turn of the 20th Century, and the company still exists today. William Powell was an ex-slave who opened a repair shop and invented or improved tools. George Downing owned a hotel in Rhode Island and was a caterer before the Civil War. Robert Reed Church was a Memphis businessman who built a park for summer festivities, graduations, and held Thanksgiving dinners for the poor.
To conclude my summary/analysis of “Keeping the Spotlight on Failure,” we
need an inclusive attitude toward information on history, especially something as twisted by dogmatic paradigms as African-American history. I certainly didn’t want to read depressing Black History essays, and I received tons of them until I wrote a guide to writing a Black History essay for my class. It was their one chance to do an essay on this topic, so be happy. Undoubtedly, Ms. Wright could have predicted that young blacks would generally focus on the dreariest aspects of their history unless urged not to do so.
To conclude this talk, I hope you have a better understanding of Booker T.
Washington’s achievements in the cause of African-American advancement and the business-oriented movement that not only succeeded him but preceded him too. It is too easy to judge somebody in the distant past by today’s standards. Maybe history can teach us to develop empathy and understand cause-and-effect. Furthermore, it is a victory for an entire country when any disadvantaged group can improve their status, not just the disadvantaged group.