Born as a slave in Virginia, Booker T.
Washington became the most powerful educator for African-Americans in his era.
In his account Up from Slavery, he describes
the obligations and the obstacles he experienced throughout his life to rise up
from slavery and to become a prominent member of society. In order to achieve success,
he emphasizes the importance of education and hard work, believing their
interconnection would help his race to rise up from the perception of slavery
and ensure the whites of the usefulness of educating the colored people. He
also favored the assimilation of blacks into white society by acquiring white
customs and the improvement of race relations by mutual respect. Booker T.
Washington was a perfect example of persistence that despite difficulties and
barriers, he never gave up his dreams of becoming educated and helping others
by teaching them how to be self-reliant in a society new to a freedman.
As a child, Washington learned
the necessity of hard work to help his poverty-stricken parents by working in a
salt furnace and a coal mine. His growing desire for education encouraged him
to learn to read and to attend school besides working. When he heard about the
new Hampton Institute, a school opened for all races, he left his home in hope
of acquiring better education. After a series of difficulties based on skin
color and the lack of money, he finally reached the Hampton Institute where he
was hired as a janitor and enrolled as a student. At Hampton, he found a mentor
in General Samuel C. Armstrong who later played a pivotal role in encouraging
Washington to establish a vocational school for African Americans in Tuskegee,
Alabama. Despite vicissitudes, Washington not only overcame the difficulties
during the tough years and made the Tuskegee Institute famous for its
industrial education, but himself also became an influential spokesperson of
Washington was conscious
of his white audience and used the art of language carefully in his speeches
and throughout the book, neither criticizes nor compliments, to gain support
for the Tuskegee Institute. He might have had a distinct opinion of the tension
between the two races during the Reconstruction period; nevertheless, he constantly
reassured the whites that his people had no feelings of bitterness against
their former slaveholders.1 This accommodationist
tactic seemed to work because he convinced whites to support his race and
institution while it made him a significant figure for both races. He became a
liaison between the two races by stressing the companionship with each other.
He believed that both races suffered from the institution of slavery but in
different ways, identifying it as a common ground between them. Washington
possessed the leverage to persuade people of the importance of a good
relationship between races that could lead to the development of the person,
the community, and the whole country. In his five-minute speech to an audience
of whites at the meeting of Christian Workers in Atlanta, he emphasized the
industrial education of black people as a tool for advancing this relationship,
which earned a great success for him and an invitation to deliver his famous
speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta.
Washington reached the peak
of his career with his “Atlanta Compromise” speech in Atlanta. In this speech,
he urges his black fellows to “cast down their bucket where they are” and
become “skillful in agriculture, commerce, mechanics, and domestic service by
He also reassures the whites of the blacks’ “loyalty and commitment” to the
cause of “working together to mutual progress.”3 He believed that the two
races can co-exist only through the industrial education of blacks, the
accumulation of their wealth, and the compromise with the South. However, with
these statements, Washington also implies that black people should accept
inferiority and give up on their civil rights. In his speeches, he neither
calls for the acquirement of political power through black suffrage nor higher
education for blacks. He did not believe in political activism, instead, he
supported education, the dignity of work, and assimilation into white society
as black progress.
Washington’s views on
black progress seemed to please northern and southern whites, which gained
great support for his race. Although his teachings were suitable in the period
of Reconstruction when freed black people needed a leader and guidance in their
new social status, he received great criticism from black intellectuals with
high education, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who saw Washington’s doctrine of
compromise as surrender to white dominance.4 Whether it was submission to
the whites or not, by the end of the day, Booker T. Washington remained the
leader to most of his race by earning respect and support from the dominant
Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New
York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Booker T. Up from Slavery. New York:
Dover Publications, 1995.
1 Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, (New York: Dover
Publications, 1995), 98.
Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New
York: Dover Publications, 1994).