When Booker T. Washington delivered his “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition, nearly 15 years after the founding of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the effect was galvanizing. Frederick Douglass, until then the most prominent black American leader, had been in his grave only six months. Washington, now ascendant, proposed terms for a so-called “compromise” with the New South establishment.
In short, Washington promised to use his influence to persuade Southern blacks to delay indefinitely their hopes of full equality—briefly realized during Reconstruction—and to pursue instead the dignity of useful labor, to seek through education and industrial skills to become valuable, even indispensable members of their communities. In return, white leaders at every level would extend a hand to blacks and promote their material progress.
Most Americans North and South applauded Washington’s initiative, including most southern blacks. Articulate dissent from Washington’s position originated largely in the North, particularly among the black intelligentsia—what Zora Neale Hurston referred to as the Harlem “niggerati.” Most prominent among these was W.E.B. Du Bois, who argued that Washington’s “compromise” was in fact a betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of the Southern Negro, and that his gospel of labor and self-help would inevitably play into the hands of the most uncompromising of the segregationists.
Over a century later, Du Bois’ assessment of Washington is still the predominant one taught in our schools and colleges, though recent scholarship has moved toward a more positive view of the man. Washington was a profoundly conservative thinker whose ideas, had their influence been allowed to flourish, might have forestalled the debilitating dependence of so many millions of black Americans upon our morally bankrupt affirmative action regime.
Born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia, Washington was not yet 10 years old when Emancipation was declared. Shortly after, he migrated with his mother and brother to West Virginia, where he worked by day in a salt furnace and studied by night in a makeshift school where the students, both children and adults, were former slaves. As he wrote in his 1901 biography, Up From Slavery, his fervor for education was such that, when he heard of a school back in Virginia, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which provided an opportunity for the “worthy” poor to learn a trade, he “was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton.” When he embarked on that 400-mile trek in 1872 he was 16 years old with a few dollars in his pocket. He made the journey partly by stagecoach and then, when his money ran out, by walking and begging wagon rides.
His years at Hampton were unquestionably the most formative period of Washington’s life. First, he imbibed there the gospel of work that would be the mainstay of his own educational philosophy. Students at Hampton were expected to pay their way, and, since they were all poor, that meant manual labor. Washington began as a janitor at the school and continued in that job (among others) all the years he studied there. “At Hampton,” he wrote, “I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labor, but learned to love [it], not alone for its financial value, but for labor’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which…[it] brings.”
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, he was exposed at Hampton to the influence of its founder, General Samuel C. Armstrong, a man whom he regarded as “Christlike” and whose ideas on industrial education would become Washington’s own when, in 1881, he founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Contemporary scholars, however, have not been altogether kind to Armstrong. Kenneth M. Hamilton, for instance, in his Booker T. Washington in American Memory (2017), depicts Armstrong as possessing a “racist, paternalistic view of African Americans.”
No doubt Armstrong was to some extent paternalistic. He came from missionary parents who worked among the Hawaiians, and was himself closely associated with the American Missionary Association. What had worked in the Pacific, he believed, would work to uplift freed American slaves.
As to Armstrong’s supposed racism, there are statements that could be interpreted in that fashion. “The colored student,” he wrote, “does not come to us bred in the atmosphere of a Christian home and community, but too often with the inheritance of a debased nature…unchecked either by innate moral sense or by good domestic influence.”
While the terms “nature” and “innate” will suggest to modern ears a conviction of inborn Negro inferiority, such remarks must be taken in their proper context. Note that Armstrong begins by lamenting the lack of “Christian” breeding, as if to suggest that “debased nature” was the product not of biological inheritance but of original sin unchecked by divine grace. Armstrong’s Christianity was deeply imbued with a Calvinist strain, one which would have insisted upon a sharp contrast between our fallen and redeemed natures. The “domestic influence” of Christianity, while not altogether absent among enslaved blacks, was not deeply inculcated at the time. Moreover, one must ask why Armstrong would have been so deeply committed to the education of blacks if he believed, in racist fashion, in their inherent inferiority?
Washington himself makes statements similar to Armstrong’s about the behavior of ex-slaves in more than one of his books. If both men believed that the lives of many freed slaves were “debased,” they also believed that debasement was the product of slavery and its legacy of dependence and broken families. It does not appear to have occurred to Hamilton that Washington’s profound devotion to Armstrong as a “Christlike” figure could not have been sustained if he thought that the general harbored a belief in his biological inferiority.
Yet, looking back on slavery, Washington’s attitude is admirably tempered. While he expresses his sympathy for “any people so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery,” he disavows any bitterness on that score. Indeed, he suggests that slavery, viewed without personal animosity, may be seen as a providential good. The blacks who suffered through what he terms the “school of American slavery” found themselves “in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously, than is true of…black people in any other portion of the globe.”
Some decades later, Hurston, in her essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” would echo those sentiments, noting that her enslaved ancestors granted her the “gift of civilization.” Naturally, in our own multiculturalist milieu, such statements arouse only fury or misapprehension.
Washington’s perspective on Reconstruction was similarly balanced. He writes that early on he felt that “mistakes were being made” and that Reconstruction policy was based “in large measure on a false foundation.” He writes:
In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish Southern white men by forcing the negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites.
The political turmoil that such a policy encouraged drew the attention of blacks away from “the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.”
It was precisely this ambition to help members of his race to perfect themselves in the “industries at their doors” that drove Washington in 1881 to accept the offer of a group of benefactors in Tuskegee, Alabama, to preside over the foundation of a new colored school modeled on the Hampton Institute. Upon his arrival he had hoped to find at least a building, however humble, in which to begin his work, but he found nothing of the kind. The Alabama legislature had agreed to an annual appropriation of $2,000 for teacher salaries, but had made no provision for him to secure land, buildings, or other equipment.
Thus began Washington’s work of “making bricks without straw,” a phrase he borrowed from the Old Testament. For three months he and some 30 students ranging from 15 to 40 years of age began their classes in a dilapidated church, and then were fortunate to find an abandoned plantation for sale. While the acreage was substantial, only a few buildings remained—a smattering of cabins, an old kitchen, and a henhouse. His students were dismayed at first to learn that their “education” would involve manual labor, but the structures available had to be repaired, crops had to be planted, and a new, more substantial schoolhouse erected.
For this latter purpose, bricks had to be made, but they had no kiln and no skills for brickmaking. After a number of trial runs and the failure of three kilns, Washington, driven by desperation, pawned his most valuable possession—a watch—to purchase a fourth, after which they began to manufacture good bricks by the thousands and eventually built their first permanent schoolhouse. In the two decades that followed, some 40 buildings were erected by student and faculty labor, assisted by members of the community. That outreach provided the people of Tuskegee, both black and white, with a stake in the success of the school. Many of the local whites, at first fearful that an education for the local Negroes would make them worthless as manual workers, now began to feel that “in educating our students we were adding something to the wealth and comfort of the community,” Washington wrote.
When Washington used the term “industrial education,” he referred not simply to the acquisition of industrial skills in the narrow sense, but to any that involved manual labor, including agricultural skills. While he had no objection to the training of young blacks in the professions—medical, legal, or ministerial—Tuskegee’s focus was to be the teaching of practical skills that would have a real impact on the quality of life in thousands of desperately poor rural black communities. In fact, agriculture was a priority during the first few decades of the Institute’s existence, as evidenced by the hiring of agricultural innovator George Washington Carver in 1896 to direct its agricultural program. Of course, because Tuskegee was also a “normal” school, “book learning” was an important part of the curriculum, but one to some extent subordinated by its industrial aims. In Working with the Hands (1904), Washington’s most extensive treatment of his educational philosophy, he notes that students would not only study chemistry, for example, “but its application to agriculture, cooking, and dairying; not merely geometry and physics, but their application to blacksmithing, brickmaking, farming, and what not.”
This utilitarian focus, much criticized by the likes of Du Bois, generated enormous goodwill among those Southern whites who, despite reservations, genuinely hoped to see the lot of poor blacks improved. And it was Washington’s admirable success at this undertaking that brought his work to the attention of Southern leaders as well as to generous philanthropists in the North, including Andrew Carnegie and, more importantly, Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald, one of the owners and leaders of Sears, Roebuck & Co., would become so identified with Washington’s educational program that, over the course of many years, he endowed some 5,000 primary schools for blacks across the South. Most of these were in rural communities, and all were modeled on the principles pioneered by Armstrong and Washington.
Washington’s address at the Atlanta Exposition was, in its way, more powerful than the grandiloquent cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration. At its thematic heart is an extended metaphor and its repeated refrain: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Mercilessly caricatured in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), Washington’s speech offers not so much a “compromise” as a covenant—one intended to establish more harmonious relations between the races in the South. He exhorts southern blacks to “Cast down your bucket…” among their white neighbors, and that they shall “prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor…. No race can prosper [until] it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
To white Southerners Washington asks the same: “Cast down your bucket where you are,” among those who have served you loyally in the past, who have “made blossom the waste places in your fields,” who have proved their loyalty by “nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers…with a devotion that no foreigner can approach.” This last reference was indeed a sly piece of cunning. The “foreigners” in this instance were immigrant laborers, those who had been streaming into the fields and factories of the North for decades. Instead, he asks whites to embrace the labor of those blacks who have, “without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests [and built] your railroads and cities….”
It is unlikely that Washington was aware of how closely this part of his argument resembled the pro-slavery rhetoric of the 1840s and ’50s. But it isn’t difficult to see how his Atlanta address could be falsely interpreted as a call for a return to the old servility. This is, in fact, one of the charges made by Du Bois in the third chapter of his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). There, at one point, while seeming to rejoice over the of reconciliation between North and South, Du Bois warns nonetheless that “if reconciliation is to be marked by industrial slavery and the civic death of those same black men” formerly enslaved on southern plantations, then the only way forward is open opposition.
More specifically, Du Bois finds three faults with Washington’s vision for blacks: First, while Washington hopes to create black artisans, business men, and property owners, how will such men defend their property rights if they lack the right of suffrage? Second, while Washington speaks often of self-respect, won’t blacks have their manhood sapped by a state of “silent submission to civic inferiority”? In other words, how can Washington’s rhetoric of self-respect be taken seriously when, without manly protest, he submits to a regime in which the civil rights of blacks are denied? Third, Washington’s focus on industrial education for blacks “depreciates institutions of higher learning,”—that is, colleges dedicated to the training of students for the higher professions of law, medicine, science, and academia.
Such claims are puzzling. Washington did indeed seek to encourage wider ownership of property, particularly agricultural property, but he had little interest in training black youth to become business men. Du Bois speaks almost sneeringly of Washington’s “gospel of work and money,” but while Washington ceaselessly preached a gospel of work and was a proponent of free-enterprise, he emphatically did not encourage a gospel of money. As for the notion that property rights acquired without the franchise would somehow remain insecure, Du Bois fails to elaborate on how this could be. Even during the Jim Crow years, a man with a legal deed to a piece of property was no less its owner without the right of franchise. Both the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments clearly protect the right of “sole dominion” over property, regardless of race.
On the second point, it is curious that Du Bois and his learned Harlem comrades assumed that there is something unmanly about choosing one’s battles. A tactical retreat is hardly the same thing as a surrender. And why would Du Bois have supposed that training young black men to become good family men and breadwinners is somehow a “submissive” undertaking?
On the third point, it is true that Washington stated on more than one occasion that too many poor black families had unrealistic expectations of education; he was concerned that too often they saw “book learning” as an escape from manual labor, which, in the black mind, was frequently associated with the degrading toil of the antebellum order. He felt that combatting such presumptions should be his highest priority, but he never disparaged higher learning as such, and the formation of future teachers was a chief objective at Tuskegee.
It has been a common contention over the years that Washington was an “accommodationist” whose political involvement on behalf of Negro rights was restricted to only those initiatives that would be rubber-stamped with white approval. This image of Washington began with Du Bois and was taken up a few years later by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and has been propagated down through the decades.
But, since the publication of the 14-volume Booker T. Washington Papers (1971-1989), a number of scholars have been revising that view. We know that as early as 1896 Washington began actively, if often discreetly, resisting unjust treatment of blacks. Washington publicly opposed discrimination against blacks by the railroads, by unfair voting qualifications, by segregated housing policies, by labor unions, and by discriminatory funding for education. He frequently wrote letters to newspapers objecting to negative or unfair images of Negros. He provided funding for lawsuits challenging disfranchisement and jury discrimination. He openly challenged the tacit acceptance of lynching in Southern rural districts, on the grounds that few of those who were lynched had ever been charged with rape (the usual rationale for lynch mobs) and that the practice “degraded” whites who participated in such actions.
After Washington’s death in 1915, his educational movement did not die but was increasingly overshadowed by the politics advocated by the NAACP and kindred organizations, which sought to improve the lot of blacks primarily through the courts. That agenda culminated, of course, in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, a deeply flawed attempt by the Court to engineer equality by fiat. That same agenda eventually resulted in the federally imposed welfare and affirmative action programs that we have become so familiar with since the advent of the Great Society—programs that seem deliberately designed to siphon off the black “talented tenth” into the ranks of the upper-middle classes, while expanding the increasingly powerless middle-classes with affirmative action beneficiaries, leaving millions of poor, welfare-dependent blacks stranded and perpetually angry in the decaying cores of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and others.
Washington and Hurston would be appalled. Things did not have to be this way. Black Americans are perfectly capable of becoming the self-supporting, responsible citizens that Washington believed they could be. Had his vision not been falsely discredited by the “talented tenth” and their white abettors, blacks would be in a far better place.
Yet there is hope in the fact that for some time now we have seen black admirers of Washington rise to prominence on the national scene, men and women such as George S. Schuyler, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, and Candace Owens. Their influence is not negligible, and it is growing. In the words of Owens, “What might happen if black America collectively called the Left’s bluff on racism?”