Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Booker T. Washington: A Lion Among Men

In order to be successful in any kind of undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause.

~Booker T. Washington

By Cleo E. Brown

When I was in Graduate School at UC Davis my Major Professor was Clarence Walker Ph.D. He was an extremely strict, no-nonsense “task master” who insisted that his interpretation of history was the only valid one. I can remember writing my very first term paper for him about Booker T. Washington. In breathless anticipation I waited to receive the grade of A from him that I deserved.
I was disappointed, therefore, when he refused to grade my paper unless I changed what had been an extremely glowing and positive account of Washington and his educational policies. Eventually, after reading Louis Harlan’s two volume works on Booker T. Washington in which Harlan takes Washington to task for betraying the black community in exchange for white favor, I received an A- for begrudgingly admitting that Washington’s “politics of conciliation” had not been in the best interest of the African-American Community. If one were to divest Booker T. Washington of responsibility to the Black Community what we would find is that Booker T. Washington, had no choice in the matter.

Born a slave in 1858, Booker Taliaferro Washington by 1903, was considered by mainstream white America to be the leader of the Nations ten million African-Americans. This was not an easy feat for him to accomplish. He was only five years old when The Emancipation Proclamation was signed and seven years old when the Civil War ended freeing all slaves throughout The United States. By the time that he was eight-and-a half years old, however, he and his family were introduced to a new form of slavery called sharecropping in which his family received the basic supplies it needed to work the land for a share of the crop The Washington Family produced.

No matter how hard they worked; no matter how much their yield was the crops produced were never enough to work the debt off of the books so that the Washington’s could leave the deep South and travel North. The Reconstruction Amendments passed: The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, and The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 consequently had little impact upon Washington and his family. Running away from home, from The Black Codes, and from the new institution of sharecropping he educated himself under cover of darkness with a flashlight and later at The Hampton Institute. He founded Tuskegee College by 1881 where he was initially the only teacher on staff with a group of thirty students. Eventually expanding Tuskegee into a major college of the South, Washington came to hold enormous power and influence over the lives of the South’s Blacks.

Having been born a slave, having spent his youth as a sharecropper, and having been the recipient of useless legislation (the Reconstruction Amendments) which was meant to pacify a victimized and an abused group of people, Washington had to face the indignity of being told that despite his accomplishments with in his own community, because of the color of his skin he was not good enough to use the same public accommodations as White Americans. In his Atlanta Address he had said “We can be as Separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This compromise was in response to The Supreme Court’s Plessey vs. Ferguson Decision of 1896 in which the Court decided to legally invalidate the Reconstruction Amendments making of Blacks for the next seventy-five years, a legally inferior sub-group or caste with-in The United States who were not permitted to use the same public facilities as whites.

Under these circumstances Booker T. Washington could have done nothing any different than he did. Could he have waged war and won the war? I think not! If he had objected would his objections have been heard and acted upon by the Nation’s Eighty-Million Caucasian Citizens? He might have been killed! For the South and the North after decades of bickering over the issue of Slavery were tired of being at odds with each other and wanted to unify The Nation. To achieve this The North had decided to permit the South to do as they wanted to with the nine million Blacks who remained in the South. The South, for its part, needed a scapegoat to blame for its inferior economic, political, and social standing in the Nation after the Civil War. The South had settled on the members of the Black Community as that scapegoat. Mr. Washington was in a better position to help the southern black masses by courting white favor than if he were to anger those psychologically damaged whites who insisted upon perpetrating racism in the south between 1896 and 1972.

In retrospect, it has been said that because Booker T. Washington agreed to a conciliatory policy in which Southern Blacks lost all of their educational, legal, political, and social rights that between 1895 and 1944, four thousand Black people, at least, in the United States were lynched. Mr. Washington, however, if he had strongly objected to the new racism being perpetrated against the black community might have been amongst that number. Knowing that not only were African-Americans outnumbered one to eight in the United States but were also without the physical and the legal means to protect themselves he would also have been irresponsible in his role as African-American Leader to do otherwise.

Years later, risking the condemnation of a hostile United States of America, Washington defied The Jim Crow and the segregationist policies of the Nation to make his true sentiments known when he accepted an invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt to have lunch at The White House. The end result of this momentous occasion was the public humiliation and castigation of Washington by an unforgiving White America which proceeded to strip Washington of his influence amongst themselves. And so, I ask you , what more could Booker T. Washington have said in his day than what Marcus Garvey in the nineteen-twenties and Malcolm X in the nineteen-sixties advocated: to turn inwards with-in the black community developing a strong economic base needing no assistance from communities other than one’s own.

Happy Black History Month!

~Cleo Brown is a moderate Republican from New York City where she is both a freelance writer and Dean at a local GED program in Chelsea. She has been interviewed by New York Times and her columns will began to appears regularly this year on HipHopReublican.com


rmrd said...

"Up From History" by Robert J Norrell takes a similar point of view on Washington's place in history.

When it comes to building businesses, one has to remember from a historical standpoint that Blacks were instrumental in building the wealth of the nation from it's inception. A Black mind laid out Washington DC, and Black labor built the White House and the Capitol. Thus the "community" that Blacks should have access to is the entire nation.

Obama is President and Steele heads the RNC. What better role models could there be for aiming to influence all ethnic groups?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ms. Brown-

For sharing more with me about Booker T Washington than I have learned in 36 years.


sbm said...



I found a post that I agree with you 100%

Anonymous said...

Cleo, another wondeful article please write more!

Cynthia Jones