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Black History Month’s invisible man

"Black History Month’s invisible man" Continued...

Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, circa 1899
Wikimedia Commons/Strohmeyer & Wyman
Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, circa 1899

Booker T. Washington would have laughed at such attempts, and then cried. As students during February’s Black History Month should be learning, there was too much to be done—creating schools, building businesses, worshiping God who is objectively present—to sit around talking about our feelings.

Washington first gained a national audience for his views by speaking at the opening of the International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta in September 1895, half a year after Frederick Douglass’ death. Before the speech he knelt down with particular fervency “and asked God’s blessing upon my effort.” Then he got up and argued that if blacks built strong families, gained solid job-oriented education, and founded enterprises, political advancement would come, but the reverse was not true. Washington followed such realism with an admonition: Do not emphasize gigantic national solutions to racial problems, but “cast down your bucket where you are … and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.”

Journalists at both black and white newspapers were enthusiastic. One typical report noted that Washington’s speech “dwarfed all the other proceedings and the Exposition itself.” Why? Not because the ideas in the speech were original but because they unoriginally emphasized the common biblical heritage of both blacks and whites. They also turned away from interest-group politics, which increases racial animosity, and toward personal spiritual and economic development.

When Washington insisted that “brains, property, and character for the Negro will settle the question of civil rights,” radical critics such as William Monroe Trotter called him a traitor to his race for supposedly overlooking the role of white racism. To the contrary, Tuskegee’s founder was emphasizing the depth of racial hostility and explaining that legal changes would not dig out the cultural roots. The only way to do that was to rely upon “the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character.”

Blacks who listened to Washington saved money, bought farms, built strong families and businesses, and made economic progress. During his decade of maximum exhortation, 1900-1910, the total value of farm property owned by blacks increased by 177 percent, from $177 million to $493 million in the uninflated dollars of that time.

At the 1915 convention of the National Negro Business League, which Washington founded in 1900 and served as president, 700 delegates from 30 different states shared their experiences of entrepreneurial growth. White businessmen who preferred Washingtonian pleas for opportunity to Douglassite threats often provided start-up help.

Washington was able to say from experience, “With the exception of preaching the Gospel of Christ, there is no work that will contribute more largely to the elevation of the race in the South than a first-class business enterprise.”

Even though Washington developed strong ties with Theodore Roosevelt and other national leaders, he resisted the temptation to move to the nation’s capital. He concentrated on building up the Tuskegee Institute and other black schools, and on speaking across the country about the need for spiritual firmness and entrepreneurialism—until he collapsed in New York when he was a year short of 60.

Washington’s funeral in November 1915 included the usual funeral orations and pledges to carry out his vision—and, for a generation, “Booker and the Bible” were regularly taught. But, after a time, many black pastors ignored Booker T. Washington’s criticism of an unworldly pseudo-Christianity that ignored material needs.

Some black churches began emphasizing emotion, entertainment, and “pie in the sky when you die.” Meanwhile, some black leaders began emphasizing politics rather than business enterprise, and some white leaders, including ministers, played to racism.

Still, slowly, through the 1950s there was personal progress—marriage and employment rates among blacks were similar to those among whites in 1950—and some major public steps, such as the integration of the armed forces, major league baseball, and public schools during the 1940s and 1950s. Significantly, civil rights pioneers through the early 1960s won not by frightening whites but by gaining their respect. They won by standing on the shoulders of Booker T. Washington.

Today, African-American Studies departments at major universities blame slavery for social problems that exist in black communities—conveniently forgetting that, through the teaching of Booker T. Washington and others, those problems had been reduced tremendously by 1960.

For example, as economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, each of the first five decennial censuses taken after Washington’s death—those from 1920 to 1960—showed that at least 60 percent of all black males at least 15 years old were married. Each 10 years the percentage of blacks who were married increased, as did the rate among whites. The difference between black and white rates of marriage was always less than 5 percent throughout that period.

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