Young Booker T. Washington was an exemplary student. A sponge for information, he possessed an unyielding curiosity that stemmed from his boyhood years. Born into slavery in 1856, laws forbade him to attend school or learn to read and write, yet he observed lessons attended by his master's daughter and could not help but dream of participating himself. "The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me," Washington reflected later, "and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise."67 Thus, during the years following his emancipation, he pursued scholarship by any means necessary. Compelled to work to support his family, he labored in the wee hours of the morning in a salt mine in order to attend school during the day. Then, as a teenager, he traveled hundreds of miles alone and on foot to reach Hampton, Virginia, the site of a new vocational college created for black pupils. There he reveled in his lessons and exams, as if each moment in the classroom and every word spoken by his teachers were precious.
Washington celebrated the Hampton Institute and its founder and headmaster Sam A. Armstrong. Armstrong, a former Union officer and a member of the Freedman's Bureau, had established the college in 1869 as an agricultural and industrial school for former slaves. Like many of the school's white benefactors, Armstrong was obsessed with one objective: to transform a seemingly childlike people into a population of skilled and respectable citizens driven by the spirit of self-help. The school's curriculum reflected this goal; instructors advised their black students to avoid politics, shun labor unions, steer clear of legal professions, and to give up the struggle for civil rights. Instead, pupils learned of the virtues of hard work, frugality, and proper hygiene—lessons that the institution's advocates believed appropriate for the advancement of a race of people degraded by hundreds of years of slavery. Young people, like Washington, who were "determined to secure an education at any cost," were thoroughly influenced by the advice and encouragement offered by the Institute's teachers and administrators. For some, including Washington, experiences at Hampton proved to be utterly life-changing.68
By the late nineteenth century, vocational institutions similar to the Hampton Institute existed throughout the South, and Booker T. Washington had replaced his mentor Sam Armstrong as the most prominent advocate of such colleges. At a time when Jim Crow laws were more deeply entrenched in southern society than ever before, these black schools thrived with the widespread support of whites. As lynch mobs became increasingly bold in their assassinations of black southerners who displayed too much confidence, too much material success, or too much intelligence, Booker T. Washington, the emerging black southern leader who best represented these characteristics, appealed to Americans across class, regional, and color lines. During the most turbulent years in American race relations, whites (and many blacks) in the North and the South heralded Washington and his plan for black uplift as offering the solution to the southern "race problem."
At first glance, these were strange paradoxes, but on deeper inspection few contradictions existed. Booker T. Washington's plan for black uplift, in fact, did not seem to conflict with the system of segregation that defined the post Radical Reconstruction South, nor did it contest white assertions that the black race was to blame for its failures. Washington placed the burden of black success squarely on the shoulders of African-American citizens. It was they, he said, who must help themselves by striving for excellence and accepting their own deficiencies in talent, ambition, and morality. Black citizens, he preached, must not fight disenfranchisement and segregation but must instead focus on proving themselves worthy of the vote and social equality. "[T]he whole future of the Negro," Washington professed in his autobiography, "rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character."69
In exchange for this commitment to black self-help, Washington asked white citizens, investors, employers, and political leaders to allow his people a fair shake at economic advancement. In his most publicized speech delivered in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington pledged to his predominantly white audience the loyalty and patience of the black race. "The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly," he explained, "and that progress is the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of sever and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing."70 Many whites, primarily northern investors and southern employers, praised Washington's promise of a productive and loyal black labor force and applauded his suggestion that whites and blacks could live together in harmony, "separate as the fingers, yet, one as the hand."71
In addressing the black community, Washington stressed, above all, the value of the dollar. He urged his people to refrain from demanding social reforms and civil rights, at least until they had educated themselves, achieved material success, and earned for themselves respect among their peers. In this way, each black citizen "could lay the foundations upon which his children and grandchildren could grow to higher and more important things in life."72 In other words, Washington promoted a thoroughly capitalist notion of economic advancement—the "American Dream"—upon which the United States had been founded.
Many of the African-American community's middle and upper class members embraced their leader's message. In their own material success they found faith in his declarations. Among these elites, including black politicians and office seekers, school administrators, entrepreneurs, and church leaders, Washington found his greatest support. In addition, Washington—his life a prototype of the rags-to-riches tale—earned favor among the working class black masses. Those who believed it possible to emulate such personal progress deemed him a worthy role model. Furthermore, these southern supporters perceived Washington's tactics of compromise as obligatory for continued survival within the confines of the Jim Crow South; behind their leader, they resolved to utilize accommodation in order to slowly but surely undermine an elaborate system of oppression. (Contrary to popular myth, no black leader until the ascent of Marcus Garvey in the 1910s garnered more support from the nation's black masses.)
Some African-Americans, however, rejected Washington's proposed solution to their subordination. Most prominent among his dissenters was W. E. B. Du Bois, a scholar raised in the North and educated, primarily, in the South. During the years of Washington's rise, Du Bois lived and taught throughout the Jim Crow South. As he toured the region, worked in various segregated schools, and listened to black southerners describe their experiences living in poverty, he became deeply troubled. In erecting political, legal, social, and psychological obstacles, Du Bois found, whites had effectively denied blacks freedom.
Like Washington, Du Bois criticized those members of the community whom he deemed lazy or criminal. He also concluded that with economic success, blacks would gain equality. Du Bois disagreed with Washington, however, in his views on the value of political agency, higher education, and civil liberties. Without the vote, equal access to professional opportunities, and equal protection under the law, black progress was all but impossible. Washington's doctrine, Du Bois argued, prepared the black race to fail and, ultimately, allowed "whites, North and South, [to] shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro's shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation."73 That whites consistently denied blacks access to full citizenship, he avowed, should not be excused; the reality was that, no matter how much humility blacks displayed, whites would continue to resist racial equality by any means necessary.
Du Bois was right. In fact, his theory about white opposition to black advancement was far more accurate than he knew. He and Washington disagreed, fundamentally, over the path to progress, but in the end, both believed the road could be paved. Neither leader, however, grasped the fact that in the Jim Crow South, progress itself proved to be the greatest enemy of all. In general, the experiences of African-Americans mocked the claim that the nation was a "Land of Opportunity." All too often, black success provoked white resentment and invited retaliation. Farmers who managed to purchase land or animals, successful businessmen and women, those who advanced professionally, and black families displaying evidence of material gain were vulnerable to white intimidation, harassment, terrorism, and violence. Success—whether paired with accommodation and segregation or with suffrage and higher education—was ultimately suicidal.
In the months before his death in November 1915, Booker T. Washington joined ranks with other black leaders to decry D. W. Griffith's sensational pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Much to the dismay of black organizations and citizens nationwide, the movie became a blockbuster hit, raking in millions in profits. Griffith's portrayal of African-Americans in the film—as villains, brutes, savages, buffoons, and cowards—helped justify the exclusion of blacks from full citizenship, helped validate and sustain segregation in the South, and, perhaps most significantly, encouraged the nation to continue to excuse the murder of fellow citizens.
It remains unclear from Washington's own writing whether he realized, through these awful stereotypes, the tragic flaw in his program. Did he lament his inability to understand the true depth of racism in the South (and throughout the nation), or was he ultimately disappointed in the failure of his people to pull themselves up economically and to win the respect of white society? Perhaps he felt a bit of both. Washington's own words and the records of his tireless work reveal that he was a complex man. He was both practical and idealistic, but above all, he was restless. He cultivated power and nurtured relationships with powerful people—whites and blacks—in order to secure for his people as much as he believed could be attained within the limits of Jim Crow. In the final year of his life, as his elite clout waned and the injustices he hoped to eradicate only grew in scope, Booker T. Washington may have looked to the new generation of blacks for better answers.