Booker T. Washington was born into slavery sometime around 1856. Following emancipation, he and his family moved to West Virginia to be with his mother’s husband, an escaped slave. He taught himself to read, and was able to attend school through perseverance and hard work. Working in coal mines and salt furnaces, he was eventually able to go to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) for higher education. In 1881, Samuel Armstrong, Hampton Institute president, recommended Washington to be the leader of the new Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Washington built the school into one of the premier institutes of higher learning for African Americans, and ended up becoming the most prominent black voice in the country until his death in 1915.
This book is his memoir that details his rise from slave to national renown. It was published in 1901.
For what it is, it’s a decent autobiography. I’ve been particularly interested in this time period for awhile now, so it’s good to get an accounting of a prominent black man’s life – and I didn’t specifically know much about Booker T. Washington prior to reading this, so this seemed like a great place to start.
With that said, it was utterly shocking that the story of his life can basically be boiled down to, “work hard, don’t sweat the small stuff, do without, and white people have helped me a lot.”
I really don’t want to diminish the experiences of a person. Booker T. Washington achieved a lot in his life – and he educated hundreds – if not thousands – of freed slaves, leading to them building better lives for themselves. And much of what he was able to do, he did himself. The American myth of rugged individualism and perseverance leading to success is well represented, here. He didn’t do it wholly by himself, of course, as he had numerous benefactors – but there is no taking his success away from him. I can think of no finer example of someone “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” than Book T. Washington.
But it’s impossible to read this and not think of all the things not said. All the stories not told.
While Booker T. Washington was growing the Tuskegee Institute, freed slaves all over the American south were living in conditions worse than they’d experienced prior to freedom, and the very foundations of the racial caste systems of inequality which we are currently living with were formed in this era. For this reason, this book feels empty and disingenuous.
Which isn’t a unique take on Booker T. Washington. Celebrated as the most prominent black figure of his era, his legacy has been challenged by numerous voices over the last century. A cursory Google search of him shows frequent uses of the charge of “accommodationism”. Washington was more focused on building the moral character of black Americans, and teaching them to take charge of their behavior and education while trying to build economic strength. In his view, political power is the last step, and he expresses disdain for unqualified elected black officials in southern states following the end of the Civil War.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Cosby telling young black men to pull up their pants. And I think Washington, were he alive today, would get along well with Thomas Sowell and Coleman Hughes. Which isn’t to invalidate him or his experiences, but (I think) does lessen his impact on the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Hindsight being what it is, I think W.E.B Du Bois (who supported Washington early on) might have a larger footprint.