Friday, March 20, 2009

Booker T. Washington: Advocate for Black Education

Historians David Beito of the University of Alabama and Jonathan Bean of Southern Illinois University have an interesting article on African-American educator and civic leader Booker T. Washington in the March 23 National Review.

To progressives, Washington's creed of self-help, opportunity, business achievement, and rejection of self-pity wasn't politically correct. Washington sought a "blotting out" of racial prejudice in civic and business life. But he didn't think African-Americans should rely for their economic advancement on government aid and political remedies. As Beito and Bean point out, "Liberals don't have much use for Washington." He was simply too bourgeois.

Washington succeeded in life in important measure because of his diligence in school, at the Hampton Institute. He went on to be the first president of the Tuskegee Institute.

Beito and Bean (drawing on the important historical work on Washington of Robert J. Norrell) point out that Washington had "no small role" in the "spectacular" rise in African-American literacy in the American South between the end of the Civil War and the early years of the twentieth century. Among other things, he encouraged philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (of Sears Roebuck) to contribute money toward the building of thousands schools for African-Americans throughout the South.

Washington stressed effort and intellectual disciple in school as necessary to student progress. Beito and Bean quote Washington, in a 1898 letter to a Birmingham newspaper, writing:
Each day convinces me that the salvation of the Negro in this country will be in his cultivation of habits of thrift, economy, honesty, the acquiring of education, Christian character, property, and industrial skill.
That same year, Washington made this point again in a speech in Chicago:
[W]e in the black race [shall acquire] property, habits of thift, economy, intelligence and character, [and each make] himself of individual worth in his own community.
Beito and Bean quote Washington as writing that "any man, white or black, with education" can find a job or create work for himself if he is willing "to begin at the very bottom."

Washington's message was a gospel of self-help through hard work, determination -- and education.

UPDATE (3/21/09) You have to have a subscription to National Review to read its article online. But Beito and Bean have also published a related piece on History News Network (HNN), which unfortunately doesn't cover Washington's views on education as fully.

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