The autobiography of Booker T. Washing titled Up From Slavery is a rich narrative of the man’s life from slavery to one of the founders of the Tuskegee Institute. The book takes us through one of the most dynamic periods in this country’s history, especially African Americans. I am very interested in the period following the Civil War and especially in the transformation of African Americans from slaves to freemen. Up From Slavery provides a great deal of information on this time period and helped me to better understand the transition. Up From Slavery provided a narrative on Washington’s life, as well as his views on education and integration of African Americans. All though this book was written in the first year of this century I believe Washington’s views are still valid today. America can probably still learn from them.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in either 1858 or 1859. Birth Records were usually not available to slaves. Booker, his brother and his mother moved to Malden West Virginia after the Civil War. They went to live with his stepfather, whom they had only seen a few times before. When they arrived in Malden, Washington was no more then nine years old. However, he went to work with his stepfather in the salt mine business feeding the furnaces. His education started with a Webster’s old “Blue-Black” spelling book that his mother had provided him. She hoped it would help him to learn to read. When Washington started working with his stepfather in the salt mines, he had to work from dawn to 9:00 PM, receiving very few breaks during the day. During his breaks he would study his spelling book, teaching himself to read. While working with his stepfather, a local school opened up for black people. But because of Booker’s value to his family in the mines, he continued to work there at the request of his parents.
Eventually, he talked his stepfather into letting him attend school a few hours during the day. Booker, however, ran into another problem. His stepfather wanted him to work until 9:00 AM and the young Booker found it difficult to reach school in time. He therefore did something that he was not proud of later in life. Washington learned to change the clock every morning from half past eight to nine so he could arrive at school on time. The supervisor realized someone was changing the clock and locked it to deny access to all but himself. This is an example of the length to which the young Booker went to have a chance to learn. Booker learned at an early age the importance of doing things for himself.
Another story from the book shows what helped to build Booker’s character. While at school he noticed that all of the people were wearing caps. When he confronted his mother about this she explained they could not afford to buy him a store bought cap. But she told him that she would work something out. Washington’s mother took two old pieces of cloth and sewed them together to make him a cap. For the rest of his life, he would remember that cap as an important lesson in his life. Washington states:
The lesson that my mother taught me in this has always remained with me, and I have tried as best I could to teach it to others. I have always felt proud, whenever I think of the incident, that my mother had the strength of character enough not to be led into the temptation of seeming to be that of which she is not-of trying to impress my schoolmates and others with the fact that she was able to buy me a “store hat” when she was not.
Later, the young Washington took a job at the home of a Mrs. Ruffiner as a house servant. Many boys before him, in the same job, lasted had only a few weeks because of her demands. Ruffiner was very strict and expected the best out of the boys that worked for her. She demanded that they be clean and well behaved. This stayed with Booker for the rest of his life. He notes, “Even to this day I never seen bits of paper scattered around the house or in the street that I do not want to pick them up at once.”
After working for Ruffiner for a year and a half, young Washington was accepted at the Hampton Institute, a school set up by whites to educate African Americans after the Civil War. He worked as a janitor there to support himself and pay his tuition, room, and board. At the Hampton Institute, Booker met General Armstrong, a white man and the principal of the Hampton Institute. Armstrong made a great impression on Booker. He writes: “a great man-the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet…part of that Christlike body of men and women who went into the Negro schools at the close of the war by the hundreds to assist in lifting up my race.”
While at the Hampton Institute, Washington learned important lessons about education that would stay with him the rest of his life. These lessons included the fact that keeping clean was an important part of a person’s self worth. He also learned that education does not mean that one was above manual labor. Washington felt that education should be well rounded and that a person should learn to love labor. He should also become self reliant and useful to those around him. He believed that a person should not be selfish and should lead by example. Washington would take these lessons with him to the Tuskegee Institute where he would later be the principal.
In May of 1881, General Armstrong received a request, from a group of philanthropists, to suggest a principal for a new school for colored people in a small town in Alabama called Tuskegee. When the request was made it was assumed no colored man would be qualified. But to the surprise of the founders of the Tuskegee Institute Washington was suggested for the position. They accepted him. After arriving in Tuskegee, the founders and Washington decided that the school would open up on July 4, 1881, Independence Day. The doors to the soon be famous institute opened as planned with “little more then a broken down shanty and a old henhouse, without owning a dollars worth of property and but one teacher and thirty students.”
Washington believed the purpose of the Tuskegee Institute was to produce people who could work hard, to learn a trade, and earn a living. In addition, he believed they should also learn the importance of cleanliness and spirituality. Washington hoped that graduates would go throughout the country and be an example to all who came in contact with them. Reading, writing and arithmetic was taught. But a stronger emphasis was placed on the trades and daily living skills. He wanted students to understand that there was no shame in being a laborer. He believed that an education was for the whole person and not an excuse to avoid manual work. As part of the students training, they were required to do all of the work at the institute. Learning a marketable trade such as construction, farming, raising of livestock, and mechanical repairs were vital. Life skills such as how to keep a bankbook and save money, bathing, table manners, clothes washing, and mending were also taught. Furthermore Washington made religion a large part of his students program. Although no one particular form of Christianity was forced upon the students, it was part of their education to participate in daily services. By doing this Washington felt he was teaching students to be complete persons, who could be proud of themselves and what they were able to accomplish.
Twenty years after its humble beginnings, the Tuskegee Institute encompassed over 2,300 hundred acres of land, 66 buildings built by the student themselves, and over thirty industrial departments. All of the industrial departments taught trades that allowed students to get jobs as soon as they left the institute. At this point of the institute’s life, the major problems were trying to fill the requests for workers. They were receiving more than twice what they could provide. Because of space and funds, the school could only admit half the men and women who applied. Washington sums up his ideas on education in his autobiography:
In our industrial teachings we keep three things in mind: first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives-in a word, to be able to do the things which the world wants done; second, that ever student that graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others; third, to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labor is dignified and beautiful-to make each one love labor instead of trying to escape it.
Washington died in 1915 as one of the most well known black men in the world. He sat for dinners with the President of the United States, royalty of Europe, as well as most of the industrial giants of his time. Washington was an intelligent man trying to do what he believed to be best for his people. That was to provide them with an education that would enable them to live exemplary lives. Some black leaders in America today, such as Alan Keys, look to return to Washington’s form of educating the “head, hand, and the heart.”
The Tuskegee Institute has changed since Washington’s time. Although the school was created to help the most black people possible to learn a trade, it now helps a very few earn elite college degrees. Whether it is better to try and help the top10 percent of a population or to help the other 90 percent is a question that has yet to be answered by anyone adequately.
Washington’s view on integration consisted of living by example. Washington felt that if black people were to show white people that they could act civilized and be an asset to the community all the races would eventually get along. Washington did not think that the government could force one people to accept another with the stroke of a pen. Washington felt that it was up to African Americans to prove themselves as equals.
In my opinion, Washington’s ideas on education should replace today’s school system. High schools are trying to prepare everyone to go to college rather then teach them how to do a job and earn a living. Today’s schools are starting to change with Community Based School Management and Charter schools, which return control back to the local level. However, in my opinion, the transformation is too little and too slow for the generation of African Americans that are now being left behind.
I also agree with Washington’s views on integration. I believe that he has been misinterpreted as a separatist. I believe that there should be laws against discrimination. However I also realize, as did Washington, that the government can not force people to change their attitudes.
While reading about Washington I came across some information that might help vindicate him on his views on education. Today, the emphasis is on a college degree in academia, instead of manual labor. Also moral character is definitely not part of today’s teachings. Joe Maxwell of the Capital Research Center writes in his report “The Legacy of Booker T. Washington” that market trends have shown Washington’s system may provide more jobs to a greater number of the population then centers for higher learning. He reports that a recent survey showed that 25 percent of small businesses surveyed are worried about the shirking number of qualified workers in the trades. On the other hand in a recent survey of graduates from a small vocational school where 125 of 132 grads responded, only 8 of them were unemployed. The rest were working in their trades. According to Michael Cantwell, national director of manufacturing at a management consulting firm, “There is clearly a supply and demand problem for many manufactures” (Maxwell). An employment manager for a large electric company states that it is very frustrating that even C- minus students are going to college, leaving only D students for the blue collar jobs. Currently there are companies with hundreds of job openings that can’t be filled, paying up to $20.00 per hour. Today a good tool and die maker can make up to $60,000 a year with a little over time (Maxwell).
Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and forced busing starting in 1971, living standards for African Americans in America have declined markedly (Martin). Some African Americans leaders are suggest a return to the ways of Booker T. Washington. Kenneth W. Jenkins, former President of Yonkers New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), states that “in Yonkers segregated schools have been eliminated. But that outcome came years into litigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP, which has cost the city about $37 million in legal expenses. And today black students still test two grade level below white schoolmates.” It is his belief that this money would have been better spent on schooling and teaching students the skills necessary to participate in the work force (Kunen).
Alvin Thornton, who devised the Neighbor Schools Plan, believes we should teach the whole child as did Washington, “It’s about making the black child whole-even if it means educating them in schools that happen to be all black (Eddings).”
I realize that these last few paragraphs are getting off of the autobiography of Booker Washington. However these questions came to mind while reading the book and you can not help but want to investigate further into the life and legacy of Washington. Washington did not think it was possible to take a race that had been held as slaves for generations and set them free then expect them to be equal to their former masters.
I can not sum up what Washington thought about race relation and the education of African Americans better than his own words from his speech to The Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, at Atlanta on September 18, 1895.
…Progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing…It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a doll in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than an opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.
Eddings, Jerelyn. (1997). Second thoughts about integration. U.S. News on line http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/970728/28NAAC.HTM
Kunen, James S. (1997, July 21). Integration forever? Time
Martin, Abu. ; Gavin, Shaun. Urban black male in crisis. Urban black male in crisis http://www.auser.org/Understanding/UrbanBlackMale.html
Maxwell, Joe. (1996). The legacy of Booker T. Washington: a family reunion. Capital Research Center http://www.pff.org/crc/pcs/pcs-1196.html
Washington, Booker T. (1963). Up from slavery, an autobiography. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday.