Leader of African American Community – Booker T. Washington
He is an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States. Washington was born on April 5, 1856 in Virginia. He was born into a slave family with no father; his father is said to be a white man who resided in a neighboring plantation. Although a slave, he was an eager man and had a hunger for education. When he was 9 years old, he and his family gained freedom under the emancipation proclamation and they moved to West Virginia where he started attending the newly formed school for African Americans. He gained his higher education from the Hampton Institute, a school established by Samuel C. Armstrong (inspiration and a mentor to Washington) to educate freedmen and their descendants. Upon finishing the admissions test, that consisted of sweeping a room, he was promptly admitted. I think this is one of the key moments in his life where he realized that it’s these skills and hard work that will help him and all others rise above the ranks.
After completing his education he devoted his time to teaching freed slaves in Tuskegee, Alabama. (Holt) He set out an agenda for Tuskegee Institute that included the basic practice of personal hygiene, the development of social manners, farming, and craftsmanship skills. The institute was constructed with the help of students and the citizens of Tuskegee, as they were considered very helpful (Holt). This is where Washington realized that both the black and white people had no choice but to make the best out of a difficult situation and live in harmony. While fundraising for his school in the north, he was often invited to speak at various engagements, an area where he excelled. One of these engagements was at the 1895 Cotton States International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Being born a slave and knowing the importance of hard work, Washington believed that an individual can be recognized and given an equal place in society if they perform with a high degree of skill in their respective profession, regardless of their race. He says, “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.” In return for African Americans remaining peaceful and socially separate from whites, the white community needed to accept responsibility for improving the social and economic conditions of all Americans regardless of skin color, Washington argued. This notion of shared responsibilities is what came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise.
Although 3 decades had passed since the passing of the emancipation proclamation, he thinks that it is too early for the African American community as well as the white southerners to adapt to the newly reconstructed south. He says, “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.” I think what he is trying to convey here is that the black community needs time to adapt to the free life and should slowly progress through entrepreneurship and vocational education, which gave blacks an opportunity for economic security. This economic security, according to him, was more valuable to them than social advantages, higher education, or political office. He thinks that they should not be trying to disenfranchise the black voters in the south by directly challenging the Jim Crow segregation. But many mistook his speech as a way for him to say that former slaves should not start at the top but from the bottom of the barrel; they should not be given direct freedom like giving them a seat in Congress or the State Legislature. This mindset of his made him very famous within the southern white community and helped him gain access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education.
Washington’s efforts included cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists who would in return help him to try and build schools for the newly freedmen. He—even though criticized for his comment about black men and politics—wanted to remind the white population of the south that one third population, living in the south, is still black. He made a strong and a compelling point to remind the white southerners to accept and embrace the education of the African Americans since they are, “the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers.” It was their time to be the patient and unresentful people and help the African Americans. He realized that they have come a long way since the emancipation proclamation and that the times have changed drastically as 30 years ago, he would not be standing there to give a speech but rather be a slave and someones property. He urges the African Americans as well as the southerners to stop dwelling on the past and to start looking forward for a bright future. He feels that if both the races worked together, they can make America great, or, alternatively, one third of the African American population can resort to a life of complete ignorance and crime in the south.
He looked at the Atlanta Exposition as the beginning of a long lasting friendship between the two races where they will be treated equally and with respect. He was not in any way urging African Americans to accept an inferior position. “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” is one of the most controversial sentences in his whole speech where, according to me, he shows a sign of weakness to the African American community and is criticized by some of the most prominent black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois. They all think that Washington has forgotten the social and the legal oppression African Americans had suffered since 1865 under Jim Crow. Du Bois demanded a stronger tone of protest in order to advance their civil rights agenda but Washington still thought that confronting the whites would only lead to a state of disaster and that they needed the support and corporation of the white community in order to be heard and overcome pervasive racism in the long run.
Du Bois, on the other hand, was an advocate for the equality and the civil rights of the African Americans. Du Bois can not forget that this world was divided by a color line into 2 parts: one part is privileged and white, and it exploits the other part that is constrained and black (Du Bois). His only son, Burghardt, died after being refused medical treatment because of the color of his skin. Although Du Bois respected Washington, he opposed to any position that accepted the limitations of African Americans’ rights. I think that Booker T. Washington, although got a lot of criticism for his speech, but his way of thinking is something that might/will excite a lot of people because change happens gradually and no one can expect the change to happen overnight. It takes a lot of time to overcome your thoughts, way of life, and to accept change, especially when it involves some delicate topics like slavery and racism. People have to be accepting of the change that they want to see within the world and within themselves. That is why I personally think that Booker T Washingtons speech resonates with me, because that is something that I can relate to.
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