All Commentary
Monday, August 1, 1988

Booker T. Washington: Apostle of Freedom

“Political activity alone cannot make a man free. Back of the ballot, he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character.”

These words were spoken by a man raised in slavery. Yet in this man’s philosophy lies the key to freedom. His name: Booker T. Washington.

Born in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, Booker Taliaferro Washington spent his earliest years as a slave. Of his father he knew nothing. “I do not even know his name,” wrote Washington in his Autobiography. “Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing.” Yet he harbored no grudges. “He was simply another unfortunate victim,” wrote Washington, “of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time.”[1]

When emancipation came, it was like a plunge into cold water: refreshing but sobering. Washington sensed the implications of freedom even as a small boy. In his Autobiography he wrote: “The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself. In a few hours the great question with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved.”[2] Washington early on recognized that freedom means responsibility as well as privilege.

Soon after emancipation, Washington and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where his stepfather worked in a salt furnace. Put to work beside his father, young Washington seemed destined for a life of drudgery. Yet he persuaded his parents to let him attend school before and after work. Following a regimen that would have killed someone with less determination, Washington seemed to run on adrenaline around the clock.

Washington soon outgrew the school at Malden. Heating of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where blacks could work their way through school, he set out at the age of sixteen with only a few dollars in his pocket. When he arrived, the teacher told him to sweep the room. Characteristically, he swept it three times and dusted it four. As he later said: “I had the feeling that in a large measure my future depended upon the impression I made upon the teacher in the cleaning of that room.”[3] In at least one aspect, it was a more accurate assessment than any Scholastic Aptitude Test or Graduate Record Examination: it revealed character. After the teacher inspected the room, she told Washington: “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”

While at Hampton, Washington came into contact with a truly great man, Samuel T. Armstrong. Armstrong, a Northern general, dedicated himself to rebuilding the South through education when the war was over. Of him Washington wrote: “One might have removed from Hampton all the buildings, classrooms, teachers, and industries, and given the men and women there the opportunity of coming into daily contact with General Arm strong, and that alone would have been a liberal education. The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. Instead of studying books so constantly, how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things.”[4] To pay his board, Washington worked as a janitor and a waiter. To fit himself for a trade, he studied masonry. So greatly did he impress the administration and trustees of Hampton that after graduation he was appointed as an instructor.

Meanwhile, at Tuskegee, Alabama, George Campbell, a white merchant, conceived the idea of a training school for blacks. When he wrote to Hampton for a suggestion for a principal, Booker T. Washington was recommended. Accepting the position, Washington arrived in Tuskegee only to find an old, worn-out field. The school itself was little more than a distant vision in Campbell’s mind. But Washington caught that vision, and set to work laying the groundwork for what would become one of the nation’s most unique schools.

Washington set up shop in a small church, sallying forth into the surrounding counties to look for prospective students. Eventually 30 students enrolled in Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Appropriately, the first term began on July 4, 1881. It was symbolic, for at Tuskegee poor blacks would get a chance to learn skills that would make them truly free—skills that would make them valuable members of the American economy. At Tuskegee, not only did every student study Western culture, every student had to work with his hands. “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race.”[5]

During Tuskegee’s formative years, Washington confronted deep-seated prejudice and misconceptions from both blacks and whites. Many whites felt that an educated Negro wouldn’t work, while many blacks protested against making manual labor a part of the Institute program. Washington attacked these views by teaching that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.

Private philanthropy made it possible for Washington to accept every student who came, regardless of whether he could pay. White citizens of Tuskegee made donations, as did poor blacks who lived in the area. As Washington’s fame spread, and Tuskegee’s along with it, some of the money from America’s great captains of industry found its way to Tuskegee. Railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington gave over $50,000, while Andrew Carnegie donated enough to build a library, and later, a $600,000 gift. In making the latter gift, Carnegie wrote of Washington, “To me he seems one of the foremost of living men because his work is unique.”[6]

The school was an unqualified success. As a pioneer of vocational education, Tuskegee paved the way for similar institutions for both blacks and whites. In 1908, Washington pointed out that “it was the Negro schools in large measure that pointed the way to the value of this kind of education.”[7] At each commencement, visitors were pleased and amazed to see the graduates go through their paces. “I have never seen a commencement like Tus-kegee’s before,” wrote Mary Church Terrell. “On the stage before our eyes students actually performed the work they had learned to do in school. They showed us how to build houses, how to paint them, how to estimate the cost of the necessary material and so on down the line.”[8]

Soon other talented blacks began to gather around Booker T. Washington, including George Washington Carver. Calling his laboratory at Tuskegee “God’s Little Workshop,” Carver reduced the South’s dependence on cotton, which depleted the soil, by finding over 300 uses for peanuts. Largely financed by the private sector, Carver’s research gave a great boost to American agriculture.

Nonpolitical Solutions to the Problems of the South

In every area of life, Washington sought nonpolitical solutions to the problems of blacks and the South. Thus, instead of more Federal troops and more bureaucracy, Washington advocated private initiative, in his Autobiography he wrote:

Though I was but a little more than a youth during the period of Reconstruction, I had the feeling that mistakes were being made, and that things would not remain in the condition that they were in then very long. I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to punish the Southern white man by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.[9]

So important was obtaining property in Washington’s mind that he advocated property ownership rather than literacy as a test for the exercise of the franchise. Washington understood that without property, there could be no individual rights. Not black power, or white power, but “green power”—economic power—was the key to ending discrimination.

Washington had been tempted to enter political life, but reason eventually triumphed over expediency:

The temptations to enter political life were so alluring that I came very near yielding to them at one time, but I was kept from doing so by the feeling that i would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart. I saw colored men who were members of the state legislature, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.[10]

This is not to say that Washington did not believe in political activity, for over the years he was instrumental in getting blacks appointed to important posts, including William H. Lewis as Assistant Attorney General and Robert Terrell as a municipal judge.[11] But he believed and acted upon the principle that no great movement can be effected from the top down, but that it must be built up from the ground floor. Before national victories could be won, victories had to be won at the grass roots.

This was the philosophy that Washington espoused when he was asked to speak at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, the first time a black leader had been invited to speak to a large group of whites in the Deep South. Washington urged blacks to “cast down your bucket where you are” in agriculture, mechanics, and other fields, “and get to work.” He then told the white audience: “In all things that are social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential for mutual purposes.”[12]

One might say that we are as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential for mutual progress. It is the combination of localism, ethnic variety, and individualism that helps to maintain freedom in America. Booker T. Washington understood this. Unfortunately, many other reformers have not.

Washington came under attack from other black leaders, for his speech seemed patronizing. Actually, he had caught the true spirit of capitalism: service to one’s fellowman. In the free market, he who serves the best generally will be successful.

In spite of his controversial Atlanta speech, Washington’s fame continued to grow. Honors came from near and far. Theodore Roosevelt sought his advice, as did President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, who presented him with thefirst degree awarded by that university to a Negro.

Washington’s constant traveling and speaking added to an already overburdened schedule. His wife and associates begged him to slow down. His reply: “No—there is so much to do, and time is so short.” It was even shorter than he thought. In November 1915, Booker T. Washington died of a heart attack at the age of 59. At his death, Tuskegee had over 60 buildings and an endowment of nearly three million dollars. Both the school and the man were internationally famous.

Unfortunately, much of the foundation Booker T. Washington laid was to be undone by government intervention. Minimum wage laws have made it more difficult for blacks to find jobs.[13] Welfare programs have mitigated against the most important economic unit in society—the family. And affirmative action programs have often served to increase white animosity toward blacks.[14]

Despite these setbacks, the example of Booker T. Washington still remains. His achievements show that it is possible for someone-no matter what his race—to come “up from slavery” and become a truly free man. As Washington put it: “Each one should remember there is a chance for him, and the more difficulties he has to overcome, the greater can be his success.”[15] May he still inspire us today.

1.   Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (New York: Airmont Edition, 1967), pp. 15-16.

2.   lbid., p. 26.

3.   lbid., p. 43.

4.   Ibid., p. 44.

5.   lbid., p. 99.

6.   Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Making of America (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1964, 1969). p. 166.

7.   Washington, quoted in Quarles, p. 167.

8.   Mary Church Terrell, quoted in Quarles. pp. 166-167.

9.   Washington, quoted in Michael R. Lowman, et. al., Heritage of Freedom (Pensacola, Fla.: Beka Book Publications, 1982), p. 317.

10.   lbid., p. 318.

11.   Quarles, p. 171.

12.   Washington. quoted in Russell L. Adams. Great Negroes: Past and Present (Chicago: Afro-Am Publishing Co.. 1984), p. 137.

13.   Walter E. Williams. Youth and Minority Unemployment (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1977), p. 14.

14.   Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Pub., 1981), p. 223.

15.   O. K. Armstrong, “Apostle of Goodwill,” in Great Lives, Great Deeds (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1964), p. 291,

  • Mr. Peterson is headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including National Review and Human Events.