Black (and White) History Lessons from Booker T. Washington
As Black History Month draws to a close, we must not forget a great American that should be honored and studied the whole year through. Booker T. Washington, author of the autobiography Up from Slavery, presents solutions as applicable today as they were in his pivotal time in history.
In his 1895 address to the Atlanta Exposition (a gathering of mostly-white leaders in the fields of commerce and industry), Mr. Washington, just 30 years after the close of the Civil War, said:
"Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities." [emphasis added]
He finished his speech with these words:
"...I pledge that in your effort to work out the great and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors of the South, you shall have at all times the patient, sympathetic help of my race; only let this be constantly in mind, that, while from representations in these buildings of the product of field, of forest, of mine, of factory, letters, and art, much good will come, yet far above and beyond material benefits will be that higher good, that, let us pray God, will come, in a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law. This... coupled with our material prosperity, will bring into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth." [emphasis added]
Mr. Washington, a former slave, could have wallowed in his horrific past, written a book Stuck in Slavery instead of Up from it. But he took his new freedoms to heart and encouraged others to do the same. Education and hard work were his touchstones.
The speech was incredibly well received by the public -- and the press. One editor called Mr. Washington's address "a revelation," going on to say, "The whole speech is a platform upon which blacks and whites can stand with full justice to each other."
And, initially, the black community embraced the ideas in the speech. However, once the address came out in "cold type," some people felt differently, believing Mr. Washington could have pressed more on the platform of their "rights."
This was not the first time Mr. Washington received push-back for taking what could be viewed so soon after the Civil War as an unpopular stand. He was asked previously to give his opinion of the "mental and moral" character of black ministers. His criticism was unvarnished and unequivocal, allowing, however, that "It could not be otherwise with a race but a few years out of slavery, a race which had not had time or opportunity to produce a competent ministry."
Black pastors nationwide almost unanimously condemned Mr. Washington, even passing resolutions in their conferences and religious bodies condemning the outspoken leader.
Eventually, though, one of the oldest ministers of the day, a prominent Methodist bishop, spoke out in defense of Mr. Washington and the tide of public sentiment followed suit. A "purifying of the ministry" was demanded and a "higher type" of minister was sought for the pulpits. Thus, eventually most of the pastors came to see the wisdom in Mr. Washington's speech and vision, and Mr. Washington later wrote: "I have had the satisfaction of having many who once condemned me thank me heartily for my frank words."
He went on to say:
"The improvement in the character and life of the Negro ministers is one of the most gratifying evidences of the progress of my race. My experience with them as well as other events in my life, convince me that the thing to do, when one feels sure that he has said or done the right thing, and is condemned, is to stand still and keep quiet. If he is right, time will show it." [emphasis added]
When the ministers got the point, saw that they needed to lead the charge with reconciliation and reconstruction, Mr. Washington himself delighted in the "evidences of... progress."
At the time of his Atlanta Exposition address, Mr. Washington was leader of the Tuskegee Institute (official title, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute), a new, all-black state school in Alabama built on a former plantation. In fact, not only did Mr. Washington have the students learn lessons in the classrooms, he had them actually "erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake."
How different in Mr. Washington's day than our own. More and more people have lost jobs, and unfortunately had to go on the government dole -- which did not exist in those decades following the Civil War -- and this present administration (and culture, in general) seems to applaud it, even champion it.
Leading from the pulpits and finding dignity again in work are just two important lessons shining through Booker T. Washington's life. When America is willing to learn from this great man of the past, and others like him, we can again begin to move forward together as one unified great nation.