‘My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia. After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there. Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents. At Hampton I found the opportunity — in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous — to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.’ ~ Booker T. Washington, ‘The Awakening of the Negro‘, Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896
Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess.
Be that as it may, Washington’s ideas drove him to work harder to create educational and economic opportunities for his fellow black citizens than just about anyone else we could name. And given his hard work, his integrity in staying true to his vision despite attacks from all sides, and his premature death by stress and overwork, the charge of ‘coward’ often leveled at him is, in my few, manifestly false and undeserved.
Learn more about the great yet controversial Booker T. Washington here, in fact, in praise, and in blame:
The Awakening of the Negro – by Booker T. Washington for the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) – by Lawson Bush for Blackpast.org
Booker T. Washington and the White Fear of Black Charisma – by Jeremy C. Young for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog
Booker T. Washington: American Educator – Encyclopædia Britannica
Pride and Compromise – Shelby Steele’s review of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell
Speech to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia – September 18, 1895 – Booker T. Washington radio broadcast at American Radio Works
*I had the honor of interviewing Kenneth Morris last year; he’s an activist against modern slavery (wage slavery, sex trafficking, and other forms of coercive exploitation) and a direct descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, each a preeminent figure in American civil rights history and each with a radically different approach to achieving equal civil status for their fellow black citizens. However, they had three things in common: an essential pragmatism combined with as much idealism, a deep love of their people, and an abiding trust that the universal human instinct for justice would win in the end.
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