By: Booker T. Washington
Date: September 1903
Source: Washington, Booker T. "Industrial Education for the Negro." In The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today. New York: J. Pott, 1903, 9–19, 28–29. Available online at ; website home page: http://douglass.speech.nwu.edu (accessed April 5, 2003).
About the Author: Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856–1915), educator, speaker, author, and prominent black leader, was born a slave in Virginia. He worked his way through the Hampton Institute and later taught there before, in 1881, founding the Tuskegee Institute, which became one of the leading schools for African Americans. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, was influential worldwide.
During the twelve-year period of Reconstruction following the Civil War (1861–1865), large social, economic, and political gains were made for southern blacks. Afterwards, though, they faced steadily worsening conditions, including Jim Crow laws supporting segregation and the rise of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Black leaders looked for a way to improve conditions and secure full civil rights for their people. Some leaders viewed education as an important solution, but differences emerged regarding the type of education to be advocated.
Following his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech in 1895, Booker T. Washington emerged as the most prominent black leader of the time. Addressing a mostly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, he expressed acceptance of segregation: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington was proposing a mutually beneficial relationship between blacks and whites: blacks would accept current social conditions and contribute to the economic development of the South, and in exchange, whites would provide employment and trades education for blacks. Washington believed that blacks, as a race, should begin their progress at the bottom. The majority of blacks should learn trades and become reliable workers or buy land and become farmers. Once basic economic security had been gained and blacks had shown themselves to be responsible citizens and valuable to the development of the South, white acceptance and the granting of full political rights would be automatic: "No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized."
Ultimately, Washington sought the full inclusion of blacks in mainstream social, economic, and political life, along with the option of obtaining a college education. However, he believed that, for the time being, blacks should learn to do jobs that they will be "permitted to do in the community in which they reside." In this way, blacks would amass wealth and gain the acceptance of whites, on which opportunities for the enjoyment of higher learning and culture would be built.
The views of Booker T. Washington represent an important school of thought regarding the education of African Americans during the early twentieth century. Because he encouraged blacks to accept segregation and discrimination and aspire to lower-level jobs, his proposal was embraced by many whites and his preeminence as a black leader was due largely to white support. His advice was sought by presidents and powerful businessmen, and white philanthropists enthusiastically funded Tuskegeeand his other projects. Because he controlled such a large portion of available funds, Washington was able to funnel money toward industrial and agricultural education for blacks and away from institutions offering blacks a liberal college education, such as Atlanta University. As a result, Washington was the most influential shaper of black education up to the time of his death in 1915.
Washington's article includes references to the opinions of important black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois who opposed his agenda and disagreed with the assertion that blacks should "earn" their rights as American citizens. Du Bois encouraged blacks to work for immediate civil rights and believed that the hope of the African American people was to be found in a college-educated leadership. Both Du Bois and Washington spoke of the "foundation" of black progress. However, for Washington, the foundation was economic self-sufficiency; for Du Bois, the foundation was a broad and liberal education for life, not just for work.
Washington's views receive little sympathy today. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s reflected the conviction that blacks should not have to wait for or earn rights already guaranteed in the Constitution. Although Washington's goal was full equality for blacks, the approach he advocated is unacceptable to most people, white or black, today.
Primary Source: "Industrial Education for the Negro" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: Booker T. Washington makes his case for industrial education for blacks. Most blacks should learn a trade or agriculture and in this way create the economic foundation that will lead to the attainment of civil rights and white acceptance. The belief in the inferiority of blacks, he asserts, can only be countered through proof—demonstrating that blacks can be responsible and productive members of society.
One of the most fundamental and far-reaching deeds that has been accomplished during the last quarter of a century has been that by which the Negro has been helped to find himself and to learn the secrets of civilization—to learn that there are a few simple, cardinal principles upon which a race must start its upward course, unless it would fail, and its last estate be worse than its first.
It has been necessary for the Negro to learn the difference between being worked and working—to learn that being worked meant degradation, while working means civilization; that all forms of labor are honorable, and all forms of idleness disgraceful. It has been necessary for him to learn that all races that have got upon their feet have done so largely by laying an economic foundation, and, in general, by beginning in a proper cultivation and ownership of the soil.
Forty years ago my race emerged from slavery into freedom. If, in too many cases, the Negro race began development at the wrong end, it was largely because neither white nor black properly understood the case. Nor is it any wonder that this was so, for never before in the history of the world had just such a problem been presented as that of the two races at the coming of freedom in this country.
For two hundred and fifty years, I believe the way for the redemption of the Negro was being prepared through industrial development. Through all those years the Southern white man did business with the Negro in a way that no one else has done business with him. In most cases if a Southern white man wanted a house built he consulted a Negro mechanic about the plan and about the actual building of the structure. If he wanted a suit of clothes made he went to a Negro tailor, and for shoes he went to a shoemaker of the same race. In a certain way every slave plantation in the South was an industrial school. On these plantations young colored men and women were constantly being trained not only as farmers but as carpenters, blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laun-dresses, sewing women and housekeepers.
I do not mean in any way to apologize for the curse of slavery, which was a curse to both races, but in what I say about industrial training in slavery I am simply stating facts. This training was crude, and was given for selfish purposes. It did not answer the highest ends, because there was an absence of mental training in connection with the training of the hand. To a large degree, though, this business contact with the Southern white man, and the industrial training on the plantations, left the Negro at the close of the war in possession of nearly all the common and skilled labor in the South. The industries that gave the South its power, prominence and wealth prior to the Civil War were mainly the raising of cotton, sugar cane, rice and tobacco. Before the way could be prepared for the proper growing and marketing of these crops forests had to be cleared, houses to be built, public roads and railroads constructed. In all these works the Negro did most of the heavy work. In the planting, cultivating and marketing of the crops not only was the Negro the chief dependence, but in the manufacture of tobacco he became a skilled and proficient workman, and in this, up to the present time, in the South, holds the lead in the large tobacco manufactories.
In most of the industries, though, what happened? For nearly twenty years after the war, except in a few instances, the value of the industrial training given by the plantations was overlooked. Negro men and women were educated in literature, in mathematics and in the sciences, with little thought of what had been taking place during the preceding two hundred and fifty years, except, perhaps, as something to be escaped, to be got as far away from as possible. As a generation began to pass, those who had been trained as mechanics in slavery began to disappear by death, and gradually it began to be realized that there were few to take their places. There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming. For this reason they had no interest in farming and did not return to it. And yet eighty-five per cent. of the Negro population of the Southern states lives and for a considerable time will continue to live in the country districts. The charge is often brought against the members of my race—and too often justly, I confess—that they are found leaving the country districts and flocking into the great cities where temptations are more frequent and harder to resist, and where the Negro people too often become demoralized. Think, though, how frequently it is the case that from the first day that a pupil begins to go to school his books teach him much about the cities of the world and city life, and almost nothing about the country. How natural it is, then, that when he has the ordering of his life he wants to live it in the city.…
Some years ago, when we decided to make tailoring a part of our training at the Tuskegee Institute, I was amazed to find that it was almost impossible to find in the whole country an educated colored man who could teach the making of clothing. We could find numbers of them who could teach astronomy, theology, Latin or grammar, but almost none who could instruct in the making of clothing, something that has to be used by every one of us every day in the year. How often have I been discouraged as I have gone through the South, and into the homes of the people of my race, and have found women who could converse intelligently upon abstruse subjects, and yet could not tell how to improve the condition of the poorly cooked and still more poorly served bread and meat which they and their families were eating three times a day. It is discouraging to find a girl who can tell you the geographical location of any country on the globe and who does not know where to place the dishes upon a common dinner table. It is discouraging to find a woman who knows much about theoretical chemistry, and who cannot properly wash and iron a shirt.
In what I say here I would not by any means have it understood that I would limit or circumscribe the mental development of the Negro student. No race can be lifted until its mind is awakened and strengthened. By the side of industrial training should always go mental and moral training, but the pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little. We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life. I would encourage the Negro to secure all the mental strength, all the mental culture—whether gleaned from science, mathematics, history, language or literature that his circumstances will allow, but I believe most earnestly that for years to come the education of the people of my race should be so directed that the greatest proportion of the mental strength of the masses willbe brought to bear upon the every-day practical things of life, upon something that is needed to be done, and something which they will be permitted to do in the community in which they reside. And just the same with the professional class which the race needs and must have, I would say give the men and women of that class, too, the training which will best fit them to perform in the most successful manner the service which the race demands.
I would not confine the race to industrial life, not even to agriculture, for example, although I believe that by far the greater part of the Negro race is best off in the country districts and must and should continue to live there, but I would teach the race that in industry the foundation must be laid—that the very best service which any one can render to what is called the higher education is to teach the present generation to provide a material or industrial foundation. On such a foundation as this will grow habits of thrift, a love of work, economy, ownership of property, bank accounts. Out of it in the future will grow practical education, professional education, positions of public responsibility. Out of it will grow moral and religious strength. Out of it will grow wealth from which alone can come leisure and the opportunity for the enjoyment of literature and the fine arts.
In the words of the late beloved Frederick Douglass:
Every blow of the sledge hammer wielded by a sable arm is a powerful blow in support of our cause. Every colored mechanic is by virtue of circumstances an elevator of his race. Every house built by a black man is a strong tower against the allied hosts of prejudice. It is impossible for us to attach too much importance to this aspect of the subject. Without industrial development there can be no wealth; without wealth there can be no leisure; without leisure no opportunity for thoughtful reflection and the cultivation of the higher arts.
I would set no limits to the attainments of the Negro in arts, in letters or statesmanship, but I believe the surest way to reach those ends is by laying the foundation in the little things of life that lie immediately about one's door. I plead for industrial education and development for the Negro not because I want to cramp him, but because I want to free him. I want to see him enter the all-powerful business and commercial world.…
I close, then, as I began, by saying that as a slave the Negro was worked, and that as a freeman he must learn to work. There is still doubt in many quarters as to the ability of the Negro unguided, unsupported, to hew his own path and put into visible, tangible, indisputable form, products and signs of civilization. This doubt cannot be much affected by abstract arguments, no matter how delicately and convincingly woven together. Patiently, quietly, doggedly, persistently, through summer and winter, sunshine and shadow, by self-sacrifice, by foresight, by honesty and industry, we must re-enforce argument with results. One farm bought, one house built, one home sweetly and intelligently kept, one man who is the largest tax payer or has the largest bank account, one school or church maintained, one factory running successfully, one truck garden profitably cultivated, one patient cured by a Negro doctor, one sermon well preached, one office well filled, one life cleanly lived—these will tell more in our favor than all the abstract eloquence that can be summoned to plead our cause. Our pathway must be up through the soil, up through swamps, up through forests, up through the streams, the rocks, up through commerce, education and religion!
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
——. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
——. Booker T. Washington in Perspective: Essays of Louis R. Harlan. Raymond W. Smock, ed. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Harris, Thomas E. Analysis of the Clash Over the Issues Between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: Garland, 1993.
Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003.
Verney, Kevern. The Art of the Possible: Booker T. Washington and Black Leadership in the United States, 1881–1925. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901.
Wintz, Cary D. African American Political Thought, 1890–1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.
"African American Education." Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/blacked/aaedint... ; website home page: http://www.theatlantic.com/ (accessed March 10, 2003).
"Tuskegee University." Available online at (accessed March 13, 2003).
"The Two Nations of Black America." Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/etc/road... ; website home page: http://www.pbs.org/ (accessed March 10, 2003).
AUDIO AND VISUAL MEDIA
Black Paths of Leadership. Directed by Pam Hughes. Churchill Films. Videocassette, 1984.
Booker T. Washington: The Life and Legacy. Pathways to Greatness Series. Directed by William Greaves. Academic Industries Video Division. Videocassette, 1993.