Booker T. Washington is one of the most influential black leaders and educators in the history of the U.S., he devoted all his life to improving the conditions of African Americans through teaching. Despite being born into slavery and enduring difficult circumstances as a child, he was determined to attain proper schooling and eventually was able to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He understood the value and purpose of education, and, striving to deliver it to others, became the first principal of the famous Tuskegee University. Washington believed that the problems of racial discrimination and inequality, inherent to the American society during his lifetime, could be solved only if black Americans achieved economic independence, which was impossible without education. Washington became one of the leading voices of the black community and inspired thousands of people to pursue hard work and gradual development.
Major Life Events in a Socioeducational Context
The most prominent event in Booker T. Washington’s life as an educator concerned his leadership in Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, established in 1881 as a school for black people. Initially, it did not have any significant resources, which forced Washington to start almost from nothing and build the campus with the help of his students. Yet, the vocational element in education was the basis of Washington’s approach, who believed that manual labor would teach students to appreciate discipline and hard work. He wrote, “in the teaching of civilization, self-help, and self-reliance, the erection of the buildings by students themselves would more than compensate for any lack of comfort or fine finish” (Washington, 1991, p. 72). He always stressed the vital role of independence for African Americans, and the major part of his educational plan implied participating in practical projects that would benefit both students and the institute’s staff.
Washington was also well-respected among the whites in the South, and in 1895, he delivered his famous Atlanta Exposition Speech before a mostly white audience. In his speech, he outlined his vision of race relations, asked the listeners to change their attitude towards black labor, and expressed his accommodation of segregation. He also talked about his stance concerning training of African Americans, “helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to the education of head, hand, and heart” (Washington, 1895). He invited the white people to invest in schools, institutes, and universities for black Americans, thus contributing to their advancement. This, according to Washington, would benefit both races since African Americans would achieve prosperity, and the whites would receive skilled workers and wealthy customers. Thus, Washington was a strong proponent of vocational education and hard work for black people, believing that it would lead to improvements in terms of social equality.
The Broader Concerns of Society During Washington’s Time
Booker T. Washington lived during the times of major transformation of the social and political landscape of American society. The end of the Civil War marked the beginning of the Reconstruction era, which brought hope for the freedmen, among whom were Washington and his family. Yet, the issues of racial discrimination and social inequality were still present in the country, especially in the South. Following the War, some southern states adopted legislation and so-called “black codes,” which strictly limited the rights and freedoms of African Americans (History, 2019). Later, this tendency led to the passing of the Jim Crow laws, which drew a line between white and black people. In 1896, the Supreme court, with its decision on the Plessy v. Ferguson case, officially upheld segregation, giving rise to the “separate but equal” doctrine (Luxenberg, 2019). This further complicated lives of back people and had a significant negative impact on their social, economic, and political advancement.
Another serious social concern of the period was lynching, which stemmed from the problem of social inequality and was its continuation. Many whites in southern states held racist beliefs, thinking that black people did not deserve their freedom. They gathered in mobs and executed African Americans without any preliminary procedures, their victims were often completely innocent people. Booker T. Washington wrote about these atrocious acts, “these burnings without a trial are in the deepest sense unjust to my race” (Washington, 1904). According to the statistics, “from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black.” (NAACP, n.d.). This is, of course, an approximate number, but it gives a picture of the scope of lynching during this historical period.
The most recurring theme that can be traced in Washington’s books, articles, and speeches is the importance of vocational training and education. According to him, the task of industrial schools was to teach black people that “every form of labor is honorable and that every form of idleness is disgraceful” (Washington, 1913, p. 228). He always highlighted that a practical approach to education was the key to uplifting African Americans from poverty and raising them to prosperity. He wrote that in Tuskegee, they had “to make a careful, systematic study of the … needs of the South… and to bend our efforts in the direction of meeting these needs” (Washington, 1896). Instead of focusing on a well-rounded approach to teaching, Washington preferred addressing the immediate demands at hand, believing that it was only the first but necessary step towards a better future for black Americans.
The concept of “object lesson” was another repeating idea, promoted by Washington, which was inextricably linked to education. He argued that leading by example was essential for social equality and urged all of his students and readers to serve as role models for diligence and assiduousness. He often presented examples of such lessons, the most notable of them was his own, since he managed to make a journey from being a slave to the main black leader of his time. He also hoped that the stories of success of African People would improve their status in the eyes of the whites, which in turn would lead to racial and social equality (Richards, 2019). Thus, Washington theorized that vocational education would help black people establish themselves as hard-working people, which would gradually remove barriers between two races, and equality would be installed.
Booker T. Washington is still considered to be among the most prominent educators and one of the leaders of the black community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During his lifetime, he headed Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which became a powerhouse for African American intellectuals. In his approach to teaching, he always stressed the importance of industrial training, which he viewed as the necessary element for the economic and social advancement of black people. He promoted cooperation between two races and was determined to encourage the white businessmen to invest in the education of African Americans, believing that it would benefit both. Despite significant social concerns such as segregation and lynching, which directly affected his fellow people, he managed to promote the interest of black Americans. Washington’s philosophy and actions have earned him the status of a great leader, educator, and writer, whose legacy is still valued today.
History. (2019). Black codes. Web.
Luxenberg, S. (2019). Separate: The story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s journey from slavery to segregation. W. W. Norton & Company.
NAACP. (n.d.). History of lynchings. Web.
Richards, M. A. (2019). Pathos, poverty, and politics: Booker T. Washington’s radically reimagined American civilization. Polity, 51(4), 749–779.
Washington B. T. (1991). Up from slavery. New York: Dover Publications.
Washington B.T. (1895). Atlanta Compromise Speech. Web.
Washington B.T. (1896). The awakening of the negro. Web.
Washington B.T. (1905). A Protest Against the Burnings and lynching of negroes. Web.
Washington, B. T. (1913). Industrial education and the public schools. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 49(1), 219–232.