Self Help is all we Need?

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Who can we turn to if we don’t believe in anyone? This was the prevailing mindset amongst African Americans during the Jim Crow era and post-reconstruction period. Even though the Civil War was over and African Americans were technically free, the situation was far from straightforward. Despite the fact that African Americans were no longer legally enslaved, many continued to live under challenging conditions, with few opportunities beyond sharecropping- work that was strikingly similar to the labor performed by slaves.

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This included agricultural labor and domestic servitude, among other things. State laws in the South further compounded the situation, with discriminatory voting regulations and property rights, and African Americans found it difficult to integrate fully into society. One notable observer of these issues was Booker T. Washington, who was very much a product of his environment.

Washington started work at a young age, employed at a salt furnace and later as a houseboy for a white family. It was here that he learned important values such as cleanliness, frugality, and personal morality. For his education, Washington attended the Hampton Institute, one of the earliest schools for freedmen, which focused significantly on industrial education skills — skills that he would later put to use at his school in Tuskegee. Washington firmly believed that for African Americans to achieve equality and opportunity in America, they needed to exhibit self-determination, accommodation, and demonstrate moral behavior and charming manners.

Of course, Washington’s views weren’t universally accepted. W.E.B. Du Bois was a vocal critic of Washington’s philosophy. However, I believe Washington’s focus on self-help and accommodation was the most effective philosophy of his time, and it paved the way for African Americans to secure more rights and opportunities in Jim Crow America, and beyond.

It was clear that change was needed in the South for African Americans. The institution of slavery had been in place in the South for far too long, and people like Washington took notice of that. Many African Americans had suffered immensely under slavery. There were instances in which Washington recalled that African Americans truly sought freedom from slavery. One such occurrence involved a man whom Washington met who had negotiated a deal with his former master in which the slave could essentially buy his freedom, and then work for whomever offered him sufficient wages. The man traveled all the way to Ohio for work, and by that time, the Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted, meaning the slave no longer had any obligation to his former master. However, the man persisted in his desire to buy his freedom and traveled a great distance – from Ohio to Virginia – to fulfill his end of the bargain. When Washington heard this story, he knew the man was not obligated to pay off the debt, but the man felt it was necessary to honor his word to his former master. This showed that the man believed his freedom would not feel complete if he did not uphold his end of the bargain. Nevertheless, Washington emphasized that he had never heard of an instance wherein a slave wanted to maintain such status instead of becoming a free man, reinforcing the idea that once emancipation became a reality, no one wished to return to slavery.

Though this story reveals a slave’s devotion, it is clear that this particular man wanted to earn his freedom in his own way; he had no intention of taking the easy route by breaking his promise. With this newfound freedom, like other African Americans of that time, Booker felt an overwhelming sense of joy. Yet, he soon realized that freedom brought with it a daunting responsibility. Slaves now had to manage their own lives. He likened this situation to a young boy forced to provide for himself in the world. This comparison resonated strongly with newly freed African Americans. Many questions arose about various aspects of life, including how to raise children, establish citizenship, and choose a church to attend. For these reasons, the celebration of freedom was short-lived for many African Americans. With these challenges in mind, it became clear that help was necessary to navigate their new lives. As such, Booker emphasized the need for self-help and accommodation, arguing that African Americans themselves must rectify their situations and improve their lives through education and vocational skills. However, he made it clear that White Americans should not disregard African Americans, but rather be patient and attempt to integrate them into society.

Both Du Bois and Washington advocated for the rights of freed African Americans, although they held different beliefs about how these individuals should adapt to life in American society. Despite these divergences, both were staunch advocates for the advancement of African Americans in Jim Crow America. Regardless of their differing philosophies, I personally believe that Washington’s methods would be the most effective in terms of improving the lives of African Americans in post-Jim Crow America.

Both men believed in the education of African Americans. However, they differed fundamentally in their views of what aspects of education were most important. Washington believed that by becoming dependable and predominant workers, African Americans could eventually contribute significantly to the financial prosperity of the nation. As such, he believed that Black Americans required specific educational input: a form of education that would yield economic benefits.

Drawing from his experiences at Hampton, Washington felt that vocational training was superior to academic education for achieving his goal of Black social development. He articulated that Black education should be directed in such a way that the greatest proportion of the intellectual strength of the masses would be channeled towards the practical elements of life. He believed in learning by doing, favoring pragmatic, real-life activities which they could translate into tasks in their communities [footnoteRef:3].

Washington argued that African Americans had to adapt and make provisions for themselves in order to contribute to society and thereby earn equal rights. DuBois, on the other hand, while agreeing with Washington that advancements needed to take place within the Black race, argued for a more elitist approach. He proposed that the progression of African Americans could best be achieved through the leadership of the upper classes, hence his adoption of the term “Talented Tenth.”

DuBois vehemently believed that intellectual guidance from the brightest amongst the Black race was the right method to advance African Americans. He promoted the idea of a “Talented Tenth,” who, through their advanced understanding of modern culture, could propel the American Negro towards higher civilization. DuBois was convinced that without this, Black Americans would have to accept white leadership, rendering them incapable of true self-actualization and maximum societal impact.

At the same time, DuBois also held that the Negro, as a skilled worker, could amass wealth. Through this wealth, he could eventually command a recognized place in American society. This would enable him to educate his children as he saw fit and fully realize his potential [footnoteRef:4].

In my opinion, Washington’s approach and philosophy were better suited for African Americans at the time. I believe it would have been much easier for an African American male to learn useful vocational skills and contribute meaningfully to society as opposed to DuBois’s philosophy. Attaining a significant social standing – a cornerstone of the concept of the Talented Tenth – typically requires a considerable effort to reach the top echelons of society. [3: ] [4: ]

Self-determination is key; that’s what Washington believed. He felt that African Americans already had the tools they needed to thrive in society. He promoted the idea that they could achieve their rights through their own economic and intellectual progression, by mastering practical skills such as farming, carpentry, and craftsmanship, rather than through legal and political means. Moreover, he advocated for African Americans to acquiesce to segregation, a stance that earned him the title of “The Great Accommodator.”[footnoteRef:5]

Washington asserted that African Americans needed to rely on what they could do and handle. At that time, many were able to conduct laborious work as slaves; thus, by acquiring an advanced education in trades and vocational skills, they would contribute to society more efficiently. However, when it came to politics, only a handful of African Americans were skilled in advocating for the advancements and equality for their kin in post-Jim Crow America.

During Washington’s famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, he emphasized that white Americans had to do their part to ensure the advancement of African Americans. He succinctly captured his idea of ideal race relations: “In all things that are solely social we may be as separate as the fingers, yet one 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 socioeconomic conditions of all Americans, irrespective of skin color[footnoteRef:6].

As African Americans progress in society, acceptance from white Americans is also essential; otherwise, all efforts would be in vain. He proposed that if African Americans adhered to his doctrine and worked to contribute to society, they would earn the additional rights and equality they deserved. Ultimately, Washington believed that “White America” had to “cast their bucket” for societal improvement. Effectively, progress and development require a collective effort from all races.


Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential figures of his time, and even today. He came from the same beginnings as many other slaves of his time. When he became a free man, he seized the opportunity to change his life for the better, and in doing so, he slowly began to change the lives of all African Americans around him as well. Washington’s pride and joy was the Tuskegee Institute, which exhibited African Americans’ mechanical aptitudes and exchanges, making them increasingly significant citizens. Washington differed from other African Americans of his day because he didn’t ask whites to pay for blacks to attain what most white Americans did not have – a liberal arts education that focused on increasing the mind through the study of classical music, philosophy, art history, and mathematics. Thus, the concept of self-accommodation re-emerges: it was up to African Americans to find their way in society. On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, his Harvard-educated peer, advocated for the needs and desires of an increasingly elite constituency, which is evidenced by his endorsement of a liberal arts education for what he referred to as the “Talented Tenth” of the black race. He believed that this group would foster the progress of others.

Du Bois’ elitism was also evident in how he framed issues and solutions [footnoteRef:7]. Nonetheless, with every belief and philosophy, there is always opposition. A main point of contention in reference to Washington’s work is that the dominant belief of the post-Reconstruction era was that the real issue wasn’t white racists, but opportunistic outsiders from the North who had lifted uneducated blacks above their station. The white Southerner, seemingly, had no inherent objection to blacks; they just didn’t want to live next to them or have an uneducated and morally corrupt population deciding their politics. To this, Washington, and a significant portion of Black America, essentially retorted: “Fine. Truce. You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone”[footnoteRef:8]. The underlying sentiment was that white Americans were willing to cooperate with African Americans and their advances, but not coexist together in society. Nevertheless, Washington and his ideologies paved the way for the formation of the NAACP and empowered African Americans to contribute to society within their own capabilities. As Washington aged and new philosophies like DuBois’ came into focus, the notions of self-help and accommodation began to lose steam. Yet, if Washington’s philosophies had continued to proliferate and were integrated by all African Americans in post-Jim Crow America, I genuinely believe America would have turned out differently for all the right reasons. All African Americans needed to gain equality and the rights they deserved was to work hard, obtain valuable vocational skills they could then pass onto the next generation, and lastly, for society to “cast down their bucket”, acknowledging and accepting the contributions African Americans make to American society. That is why I believe in Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of self-help and accommodation as the most influential philosophy of its era as well as our current era.


  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Atlanta Compromise.” Encyclopædia Britannica. December 06, 2016. Accessed May 02, 2019.
  2. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Tragedy And Betrayal Of Booker T. Washington.” The Atlantic. September 18, 2017. Accessed May 02, 2019.
  3. Editors, “Booker T. Washington.” October 29, 2009. Accessed May 02, 2019.
  4. Johnson, Keith V., and Elwood Watson. “The W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington Debate: Effects upon African American Roles in Engineering and Engineering Technology.” Https:// Accessed May 2, 2019.
  5. Swain, Carol M. “Why Booker T. Washington Is Still Relevant.” History News Network. Accessed May 02, 2019.
  6. WASHINGTON, BOOKER T. UP FROM SLAVERY: An Autobiography. S.l.: BLURB, 2019.
  7. Washington, Booker T. “(1896) Booker T. Washington, “Democracy and Education” • BlackPast.” BlackPast. February 01, 2019. Accessed May 02, 2019.
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Self Help Is All We Need?. (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from