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 perseverance that despite of 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 his age.
Washington was aware 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 African Americans’ behavior towards the whites during the Reconstruction period; nevertheless, he constantly reassured the whites that his people had no feelings of bitterness against their former slaveholders. This accommodationist tactics 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 individual, the community, and the country. In his five-minute speech to an audience of northern and southern 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 height 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 common labor.1 He also reassures the whites of the blacks’ loyalty and commitment to the cause of “working together to mutual progress.”2 He believed that the two races can co-exist only through the industrial education of blacks, the accumulation of their wealth, and the conciliation of 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. 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 white race.
1 Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), 106.
2 Ibid., 107.