Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Rags to Respectability: Arkansas and Booker T. Washington

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Rags to Respectability: Arkansas and Booker T. Washington

Article excerpt

WHEN BOOKER T. WASHINGTON CAME TO LITTLE ROCK in October 1913 to formally open the impressive Mosaic Templars building, the Arkansas Democrat, a local white paper, told its readers, "Head of the Negro Race in Little Rock Today to Officiate at Dedication." Washington's presence on this august occasion illustrated the influence he exercised in Arkansas. Born a slave five years before the Civil War began, Washington grew up in poverty, but through hard work graduated from Hampton Institute and then built a school of his own, Tuskegee, in Alabama. With a dramatic personal story and unyielding energy, he became widely known among black southerners but was also embraced by many sympathetic whites in both the South and the North as a "safe Negro." As the Arkansas Democrat's headline suggested, he was widely regarded as the spokesperson for his race.1

Both the pervasiveness of Washington's ideas in the state and the complexity of his example are illuminated in the careers of six prominent black Arkansans. Three were born in slavery and five in poverty, but all went on to recognition and success, some at the national level. Each of these men had some close connection to Washington, either personally, through the National Negro Business League, or by way of Tuskegee Institute, and all six seemingly subscribed to Washington's philosophical precepts: black self-help through industrial education and entrepreneurship, and a strategic deference toward whites. But Washington's influence extended beyond uplift and accommodationism. Most of these Arkansans benefited by or emulated Washington's subtle politicking and his wielding of patronage within the Republican party. Washington affirmed the status of black leaders in Arkansas, while they in turn affirmed his position, at the national level, as spokesman for African Americans.

Washington's ideology was often self-interested and ambiguous, but, according to several scholars, he had as his ultimate goals "full equality and citizenship rights."2 Yet racism was unusually virulent in the decades of his greatest prominence. Black people in Arkansas and elsewhere faced declining political power, outright disfranchisement, the indignity of racial segregation (embodied in Arkansas by passage of the separate coach bill of 1891), and the persistent threat of lynching for those understood to have violated racial codes. With political and social segregation in place, even middle-class blacks assumed a subordinate position. A certain acquiescence in the face of white racism seemed like the safest and most profitable posture, both to Washington and many African Americans within the state.3 In contrast to his rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, Washington discouraged political confrontation and instead emphasized economic advancement as the means by which African Americans would win acceptance from the white community.

Washington consistently espoused self-help based on familiar Victorian virtues. He told diverse audiences that hard work, sobriety, thrift, and self-discipline would inevitably lead to upward mobility and prosperity, and, thus, to racial harmony and, eventually, equality. These were the same virtues touted in the then-popular Horatio Alger books, known as "rags to riches" stories. Over and over again, Washington argued that blacks could work up from the bottom-from rags to, at least, a middleclass respectability.4 At Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he offered a curriculum of "industrial education," which to Washington involved African Americans learning to be "industrious" rather than being trained to work in major industries such as steel or meat packing that depended on cheap, unskilled labor. Blacks should learn trades, such as carpentry, masonry, harness making, or coopering, or engage in farm labor, in order to accumulate the capital that would allow them to purchase small farms or develop small businesses. With trade skills laying a foundation for entrepreneurship and prosperity, Washington argued, equality between the races would inevitably result. …

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