Up from Slavery: Booker T. Washington Spread a Message of Hard Work, Morality and Economic Self-Reliance as the Path to Freedom

By Huso, Deborah | Success, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Up from Slavery: Booker T. Washington Spread a Message of Hard Work, Morality and Economic Self-Reliance as the Path to Freedom


Huso, Deborah, Success


As the foremost black educator and public figure at the turn of the last century, Booker T. Washington was often controversial. Believing economic self-determination offered the road to equality with whites, Washington advised 19th- and early 20th-century African-Americans to learn essential trade skills, work hard and lead lives of frugality and strict morality to earn their place as equal partners in a nation recovering from Civil War.

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"Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work."

Washington was born on a small tobacco farm in western Virginia in 1856, the son of a slave woman and a white farmer. He was only 9 years old when the Civil War ended. Once he was old enough to work, he labored alongside his stepfather in the salt mines and eventually moved into the even more dangerous labor of coal mining. While working as a miner, Washington heard about the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a freedman's school in eastern Virginia dedicated to teaching African-Americans industrial arts.

Inspired that education and a better life were possible, Washington took a job as a servant in the home of a mine owner, earning $5 a month. He credited the mine owner's wife with providing him an education in honesty, order and cleanliness, traits he would adopt as his own and preach to others in the coming years. In the early 1870s, Washington left for the Hampton Institute with the purpose of leaving behind "the degrading influence of the slave plantation and the coal mines." Resolute despite his poverty, he walked most of the 500 miles from Maiden, W.Va., to Hampton to attend school.

"If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else."

After graduating from the Hampton Institute, Washington returned to Maiden and taught students in his hometown for a short time, then taught a couple of years at his alma mater in Hampton. In 1881, he was invited to head the newly established school for blacks in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute, and became its president. Modeled on Hampton, the school was designed to train African-Americans in the trades and equip them to teach those trades in other public schools and black colleges across the South.

Aware of the constraints of racism in the South, Washington focused on helping blacks advance in the world by doing work that whites would accept them doing, thus working within the confines of the prejudices of the day to change those very prejudices. He sincerely felt that if African-Americans proved themselves a hardworking people with strong ethics, they would eventually gain not only the esteem of white neighbors and employers but economic and social equality.

"Character--not circumstances--makes the man."

Washington rose in influence quickly because audiences of all races admired his strong moral character and desire to forward the lot of his people, as well his strong speaking and networking skills. He had a major influence on the success of a national network of schools and black newspapers and later founded the National Negro Business League.

More moralist than intellectual, Washington felt at least some of the failure of African-Americans to gain equal rights after the Civil War was the result of efforts to gain political and social equality before assuring their own economic futures. Thus, Washington relentlessly preached a doctrine of economic self-determination, urging blacks to acquire their own financial stability first.

His message struck home with blacks and whites, particularly northern white philanthropists who supported his school-building efforts. He had the support of some of the most powerful philanthropists in the United States, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. …

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