Tuskegee Institute, foundation for a new building

Out standing: Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was one of the many extraordinary African-Americans in the late 19th century: Born a slave he became the founder and leader of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an industrial school that exists until this day. He believed in the positive change of the South. If African-Americans work hard and show their skills society will overcome racism and oppression. History tragically proved him wrong.

End of slavery

In 1865 the rulers of the Southern States had lost the war to keep their way of life. A life based on the enslavement of people. With Emancipation there came a new social order whites had not wanted and did not prepare for. African-Americans were free but now had to make a living in a world that only whites had ruled.

Booker T. Washington had a unique vision to better the situation for African-Americans and what a new South would be like.

Focus on economic worth

Booker T. Washington, leader of Tuskegee Institute
Booker T. Washington

The key for Washington was that African-americans became capable to make products the community needed. To provide the necessary training became his life mission at Tuskegee Institute which he established in 1881. Every student hat to learn a trade like farming, carpentry or brick making. Indeed whites and blacks alike valued the students’ produce. Booker T. Washington was convinced that by making marketable things African-Americans will gain respect. In his own words: “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race.”

With this statement Washington links the value of a person to his or her economic worth. He never says what happens with people who for whatever reason can not do something that the world wants. As a conclusion whites would be allowed to disrespect people who are not economically worthy.

No need to change for white Southerners

Washington’s approach shows that blacks firstly must prove their capability to whites. Thus he acknowledges whites’ misconception of black inferiority. It’s not white people who have to overcome their prejudice that skill is related to “race”. But African-Americans have to prove their worthiness of respect. At the same time though Washington is fully aware that slaveholders and their families never worked themselves. They cruelly forced people to do the work for them. The Southern elite is not capable to create “something the world wants”.

However, Washington never demanded somethings from whites. On the contrary: He wanted to prove that African-Americans do not wish to take too much power or succeed whites in social status. In his address at the Atlanta cotton states and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 he almost begs that whites be assured of the faithfulness of blacks. He reminds the South’s elite how lovingly slaves cared for their masters. (Ignoring the fact that not all slaves did that and that their motive might not have been devotion.) Washington does consider slavery a crime but he thought abusing whites of that crime would do no good. Thus Washington accepts the ongoing dependence on white goodwill.

The white South accepts Washington

In turn Washington is accepted if not loved by the white South. Tuskegee Institute found much praise and support in the white community. According to Washington he personally was never ill-treated by white people. He also saw it as a sign of reconciliation that he was invited to speak at the opening of the Atlanta Exposition. Never had an African-American made a speech during such an important event in the South. But Washington receives this opportunity because he never challenges the South’s power structure. Instead of joining hands with other marginalised people he does the opposite: Washington asked the Southern elite to work with African-Americans and not with migrants. It’s African-Americans who have proven their loyalty during the time of slavery.

Regarding the future Washington assumes white people will see the benefit of living with educated and uplifted neighbours than with deprived neighbours. Thus the South will change by itself. White peoples’ mindset will change from oppressing to respecting African-Americans when they see the valuable skills blacks can contribute.

History proved Booker T. Washington wrong

It is utterly sad though not surprising that Washington’s positive vision had not become true. The opposite happened after the Reconstruction period. Southern factory owners found another way to again force African-Americans into free labour. Corrupt judges convicted blacks for no reason and imposed high fines they knew African-Americans could not pay. As a substitute African-Americans had to work in factories under most horrible conditions.

Despite immense obstacles there were African-Americans who did gain education, worked hard and achieved tremendous successes in science, culture and economy. Still whites established a strict order of segregation to degrade African-Americans. Blacks served and sacrificed during both World Wars and were denied their civil rights on US grounds.

Just this very short list of historical events proves Booker T. Washington’s conviction wrong: “The great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal.”
The very sad human law seems to be that privileged people are not willing to give up their power and control. Around one hundred years after Emancipation, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”


Booker T. Washington: Up from slavery, 1900
Douglas A. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, 2009

Image Credit

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Booker T. Washington” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1897.
Source Link at New York Public Library

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Digging foundation for a new building on the Institute grounds” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.
Source Link at New York Public Library

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