Saturday, April 10, 2010

Great men of America: Booker Taliaferro Washington

Born April 5th, 1856 as a slave with only one name and one parent, Booker Taliaferro Washington would rise to become an educator, political leader, author, orator, and dominant figure in the black community from the end of the 19th century until his death in 1915.  This is my first profile on an important American.  There are two basic goals with these profiles.  The first is to encourage blacks to embrace American history as part of their own history.  Many figures in "white history" have ties to abolition or civil rights movements and drawing a connection between the two would help counter the view that all whites in American history are evil racists.  The second is to draw a line between conservative values and black history.  I picked Booker T. Washington as my first profile for two reasons.  The first being that his views on race-relations and how the blacks should achieve equality.  The second being that it seems fitting, given who is in office and who is writing this, to start with a half black man.  Now, lets continue on...

Until the age of nine Booker was a slave on the Burrough's farm in Hale's Ford Virginia.  In 1865 he was emancipated, and recalls this event in his book:

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom.... Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper -- the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

After being freed his family left the Burrough's farm and went to West Virginia to be with his step-father.  The experiences Booker had here would prove key to the rest of his life.  His mother, though unable to read or write herself, bought spelling books for Booker and encouraged him to learn.  He would, for the first time, attend school and took on a variety of jobs that included packing salt, working in the coal mine, and even a brief time spent as a hand on a steamboat. 

Later in life Booker would emphasize that the struggles he faced in his early life were not due to racial discrimination, but would portray it as a story of poverty and the rewards of hard work.  His experiences in West Virginia formed the foundation for the belief that a black man could be successful if he worked hard. 

At the age of sixteen Booker left his town in West Virginia to further his education.  He attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virgnia and later on the Wayland Seminary before returning to Hampton and becoming a teacher there.  Not long after becoming a teacher the president of Hampton recommended Booker be the first principal of the new Tuskegee Institute.

His belief in hard work and self-help were immediately evident at the Institute.  Under his direction the students at the Institute literally built the campus, including growing their own crops and raising their own livestock.  Booker's goal with the Institute was simple:  Train blacks with the skills necessary to go back out into their communities across the South and teach the people there. 

Booker took a common sense approach when it came to achieving equality for blacks.  Rather than gaining civil rights through political agitation, Booker believed that blacks should “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.”  To him it was too soon after emancipation to expect too much to be gained, and so he advocated "patience, industry, thrift, usefulness"  as the surest ways to equality.  By attaining economic power blacks could counter the prejudice white belief that blacks were naturally stupid or incompetent, and at the same time lay down a firm foundation for a strong and stable black community.  Ultimately he believed whites would accept blacks fully into society once they proved to be good American citizens.

Opposition to Booker's beliefs came primarily from northern blacks and the NAACP who believed that Booker was nothing more than a tool for white southerners.  W.E.B Du Bois contrasted Booker's plans with his own which called for immediate equal rights, and a classical education rather then the one based on industry as proposed by Booker.  The black community of the world would then be lead by an elite group of men he called the "Talented Tenth".  Notice the difference?  Where Booker promoted a strong, economically stable black community that would integrate with American society, Du Bois promoted a small elite that would rule the race, and effectively draw a sharp contrast between blacks and the rest of America.  In some ways Du Bois got his wish.

Booker was a good example for just how effective his system could be.  He had the ability to socialize with the most powerful politicians and business leaders of the day, and convince them to donate money to black causes.  He advised President Polk and President Theodore Roosevelt on race relations, and became the first black man invited to the White House.  Other achievements include:

  • Authoring 14 books, including his autobiography Up from Slavery which became a bestseller and ultimately lead to his dinner invitation to the White House
  • Secretly donating substantial amounts of money to legal cases that challenged segregation and disfranchisement
  • Founding the Negro Business League in 1900 to help promote his dream of an economically strong black people in America
  • Using donations he received to establish over 5,000 schools and educational resources across the South
  • Being the first black man put on a coin in 1946 when the US minted the Booker T. Washington Memorial half-dollar.  In addition he was also on the US half dollar from 1951-1954
  • In 1940 he became the first black man to be put on a US postage stamp

While Booker T. Washington paved the way for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s that ultimately lead to the equality of blacks in American society, his dream of an economically strong black community did not come true.  More disheartening is that his dream of a people who saw themselves as Americans, and not a separate entity, also seems to of not come true yet.  Today blacks often times set themselves apart from the rest of America, harboring bitter feelings for injustices done long ago, and feeling like they are owed something by whites today.  Despite that Booker provides an excellent example for how the black community can help itself.  Through self-help and hard work, blacks can shed the victim mentality, create a strong future for themselves, and ultimately see themselves not as African-Americans, but as Americans.

"He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry." - The words on his memorial at the Tuskegee Institute

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