Booker Taliaferro Washington was the founder and head of the then-Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, and he was a proponent of the trades-oriented education that that school provided for African Americans. Indeed, although Washington acknowledged the benefits of a more classical liberal education, he found liberal education to be of limited usefulness and denounced it as learning without the dignity of labor. He faced criticism for this educational approach and for being an accommodationist on race relations, but his achievements are nevertheless extraordinary.
Washington was born a slave on a farm in Franklin County, Virginia, in 1856. His birth parents were an enslaved Black mother and a White father about whom Washington knew almost nothing. He spent the first several years of his life in slavery on the Virginia farm until the Emancipation Proclamation declared his and his family’s freedom in 1865.
A large part of Washington’s colorful life is recounted by him in his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery. Although Washington published other autobiographical works, this one is his best known. In it, he details the most notable events of his life, from the relatively brief time he spent in slavery as a youth, to his educational exploits during his adolescence, and well into his career. Washington gives an account of his experiences at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and the extraordinary influence that the lessons he learned and the people he met there had on his philosophy of life. Moreover, he describes the numerous occasions when he undertook the tasks of spreading the seeds of success for his institution and offering his advice on improving race relations in America.
Washington’s value system and outlook were shaped in his youth, especially during his years at Hampton. One person during this time who had a significant effect on Washington’s life was Viola Ruffner, a White woman for whom he worked as a live-in servant. He claims to have learned valuable lessons from her that helped him to succeed at Hampton and in life. The person who left the greatest impression on Washington, though, was General Samuel Armstrong. As principal of Hampton, Armstrong’s educational and moral leadership seem to have affected Washington’s personal philosophy the most. Washington believed that Armstrong was noble and unselfish; showed eternal devotion to his students and all of his undertakings; and, even though he was White, never displayed any indecorous feelings toward people of any race.
So profound were Armstrong’s and Hampton’s overall influence on Washington that the ideals of Hampton under Armstrong later formed the foundation of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and his precepts of self-help and racial uplift. At Tuskegee, Washington developed a normal school that espoused a program of industrial education patterned primarily after the “Hampton idea” or “model.” He believed that Blacks should obtain needed industrial skills to ensure their economic prosperity and, ultimately, the future of the race by rendering themselves indispensable to the development of the country.
Washington’s Tuskegee was particularly tailored toward the needs (as he perceived them) of southern Blacks both because this population would primarily supply the institute’s student body and because he thought the rural South was where Blacks would be most successful. What he prescribed was that the education of the “hand, head, and heart” must go together.
Although Armstrong’s Hampton model provided the most immediate source of inspiration for Tuskegee, the vision for Washington’s institute was shaped by other sources as well. For example, Washington’s demand that industrial learning be correlated with academic instruction was a manifestation of his adaptation of Johann Pestalozzi’s philosophy and of Friedrich Froebel’s “object studies.” He seemed to believe that their ideas could be applied to the context in which southern Blacks lived. It is also noteworthy that there are some philosophical parallels between Washington’s doctrine and some major components of John Dewey’s body of work, although the Tuskegee model reached its apex long before Dewey’s impact was widely felt.
Washington’s prescriptions were not restricted to the realm of education. He believed that political involvement on the part of masses of Blacks distracted them from the more crucial task of improving their industrial skills. He spoke derisively of the political agitation by Blacks during Reconstruction, and he lamented what he saw as Black people’s childlike dependence on the federal government even though he felt that the government had failed to adequately provide for Blacks in the educational arena. Furthermore, Washington urged Blacks to cooperate with Whites instead of fighting them. At the same time, he told Whites that it was important for them to avoid passing quick or harsh judgments upon African Americans because of the unparalleled obstacles faced by members of the race.
He also used his unusually powerful position to exert a great deal of political influence. Most of it was directed toward negotiating for institutional support, political placements, and favorable press coverage, exercised both publicly and especially behind the scenes. Washington advised Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, expended an enormous amount of effort securing federal positions for his favored sons and daughters, blessed the ascendancy of his like-minded peers and tried to block the progress of those who threatened his power and belief system, and exerted pressure on many of the organs of the Black community in an attempt to gain their favor. More constructively, he was also involved overtly and covertly in efforts to overcome racial injustice.
Washington’s ultimate goal was to assist the citizens of the United States in attaining human equality. In an attempt to reach this goal, every aspect of his life was guided by one basic tenet: work to be the best at what you do, and human nature will recognize and reward your meritorious efforts regardless of your race. Despite his espousal of such a noble ideal, his life’s work is not without significant criticism. Washington has been widely dismissed as being too obliging to his White contemporaries, accused of failing to examine the plight of Black people from a broad intellectual perspective, and criticized for discouraging Blacks from exercising their political rights.
These characterizations of Washington’s ideas and practices have led many observers to describe him as an accommodationist. Washington’s leadership of Tuskegee helped to earn him the accommodationist label, in that the educational program served as a compromise between the desires of White philanthropists and industrialists, many northern White citizens, and most southern Whites. Industrial education was also appealing—at least initially—to a great many Blacks as an indirect means of attaining prosperity and racial progress.
Washington’s contributions to the uplift of African Americans and to the betterment of American society are extraordinary; he worked consistently and tirelessly to pursue his agenda until just before his death in 1915. Nevertheless, his great influence on society seems to have had conflicting outcomes: His strategies brought substantial success to Blacks and to poor Whites, but his insistence on the primacy of his method and on the unconditional approval of it apparently stifled the emergence of new ideas.
Furthermore, his undying faith in human kindness and, more importantly, his uncritical acceptance of the notion of achieving enfranchisement through the channel of American capitalism were limiting assumptions. Although his plan for racial uplift had a narrow base of application, he was motivated by a vision of hope and liberation that made it possible for him to struggle against the force of racism in the first place.
- Curti, M. (1935). The social ideas of American educators. New York: Scribner’s.
- Harlan, L. R. (1972). Booker T. Washington: The making of a Black leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Harlan, L. R. (1983). Booker T. Washington: The wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meier, A. (1963). Negro thought in America, 1880–1915: Racial ideologies in the age of Booker T. Washington. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Washington, B. T. (1901). Up from slavery. New York: Doubleday.
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