To Till a Field or Write a Poem? Booker T. Washington’s Legacy

In Honor of Black History Month

Twenty-three years ago, I landed my first full-time college teaching position at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Originally known as Tuskegee Institute, the school was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 to provide vocational education for southern blacks in the years after Reconstruction. Washington, born a slave in 1856, would overcome enormous odds to become the most influential African American in the United States by the turn of the century, even dining with President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.   

When I arrived on Tuskegee’s campus in 1995, the college was preparing for the centennial anniversary of Washington’s famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, delivered at the Cotton States Exposition in September 1895. Although initially applauded for advocating economic cooperation between blacks and whites, Washington was later criticized for articulating an “accommodationist” stance on segregation. One line of the speech was particularly galling to activist African-Americans of the period. Washington said, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Ultimately, Washington would be accused of providing the rhetorical ammunition for the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling the following year, which made the “separate but equal” precept the law of the land.

In 1995, I had the privilege of attending many campus lectures and presentations by Washington’s biographers and other scholars who discussed his legacy and impact on race relations in his lifetime and beyond. They were nearly unanimous that Washington has been unfairly maligned as a sellout to Jim Crow segregation. They argued that his reputation in academia has suffered because of his support of vocational training instead of the the liberal arts education promoted by W.E.B. DuBois, an important black intellectual and co-founder of the NAACP.  (DuBois was the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard.)

The Washington scholars I listened to in 1995 contended that prominent academics in higher education often preferred DuBois because he was “one of them.” The naysayers dismissed Washington’s insistence that to move forward, African-Americans needed to gain economic stability and independence before political equality. Moreover, the scholars asserted that many negative critiques of Washington were grounded in disdain for capitalism and the industrial progress Washington championed. In contrast, DuBois favored socialism and viewed capitalism as a mechanism for perpetuating racism and segregation.

A more contemporary biographer, Robert J. Norrell, has argued that most of the anti-Washington sentiment in scholarly circles gained traction in the 1960s, when a more activist mindset among black intellectuals–and the country as a whole–took hold. According to Norrell, in the decades after Washington’s death in 1915, Tuskegee’s founder was a hero in the black community. However, Norrell explains that in the 1960s:

Young African Americans thought [Washington] was nothing like the great new leader of American blacks, Martin Luther King, Jr., who marched into the face of racial bigotry and then went to jail in protest against injustice. Washington had accommodated discrimination rather than challenge it, they said. Washington’s rival Du Bois became the paradigm of black virtue from the past.

Many scholars in the 1970s and 1980s would embrace this mindset. Biographical entries in college textbooks characterized Washington as a “shrewd” and “manipulative” operator, far less cerebral and capable than DuBois.  Yet Norrell asserts that “a significant portion of those disparaging Washington were historians who should have been alert to the fallacy of anachronism…only too willing to apply the 1960s’ expectations of protest on a man who lived two generations before.”

As someone who admires both Washington and DuBois, I don’t think it’s necessary to choose sides. They had genuine disagreements with each other, but both men worked tirelessly to improve the lives of African Americans around the country in the ways they thought best. DuBois, born in the north, had an opportunity to obtain an elite education unavailable even to most whites in the nation at that time. Washington, born into slavery, had to work in various manual labor jobs to become educated. Yet Washington believed that physical labor was a valuable mechanism to develop personal discipline and self-respect. He spoke from experience. He was proud that his own hard work changed his life.

In his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, Washington said, “No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Washington was not dismissing creative endeavors. Rather, he feared that too many African Americans in his era considered manual labor a throwback to bondage. He hoped to show through his own example that blacks could prosper and reap the benefits of their own labor. Certainly, doing so was a challenge in the Jim Crow South, with new laws like the convict leasing and peonage statutes enacted specifically to return African-Americans to the status of chattel.  Nevertheless, a man like Washington, who came “up from slavery,” possessed an unwavering optimism that progress was achievable through hard work. Washington’s optimism could have led him to embrace the idea that a steward of the soil might offer poetic insights. Likewise, DuBois’s great mind surely could help him envision that a poet could appreciate the artistry of a beautiful crop field gleaming in the summer sun.

I’m sure that most of the young African-American college freshmen I taught at Tuskegee University twenty-three years ago have gone on to successful professional careers. It occurs to me that many of them have children—and maybe even grandchildren—now. I hope at least a few of them went on to careers in education and will share with their students the accomplishments of Booker T. Washington, an extraordinary man and educator. I also hope they will remember their first year on campus and walking by the statue of Washington “lifting the veil” of ignorance from a freed slave and feel pride that they followed in the footsteps of a truly remarkable American.

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