Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington2018-11-28T09:55:02+00:00

Booker T. Washington | APUSH®

Booker T Washington APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

Booker T. Washington

Born a slave in 1856, Booker T. Washington rose to prominence during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a leader in the African-American civil rights movement.  In the extremely segregated south of the 1880s and 1890s, Washington was most famous for founding Tuskegee Institute and for what came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise”.  The emergence of diverse opinions within the African-American community on how to proceed toward equality and the elimination of Jim Crow laws that mandated a segregated society was just as important.  Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were the key players in this debate over the best method to obtain equality.

Booker T. and Tuskegee

Booker T. Washington spent his early childhood as a slave in Virginia.  He lived most of his life in the segregated south, working his way to a position of prominence through vocational training and hard work.  His experience led him to believe that the best way to achieve equality for African-Americans was through vocational training.  Additionally, he believed that immediately pushing for full social and political equality, which had been tried early in reconstruction before “redeemers” regained control of state governments, was “folly.”  Instead, Washington believed that African-Americans would fare better by learning agricultural and vocational skills and developing economic self-determination over insisting on political and social equality.  In the south of the late nineteenth century, Washington knew that pushing too hard for equality could result in physical violence, including lynching.

His experience led him to believe that the best way to achieve equality for African-Americans was through vocational training.

In 1881 Washington helped to establish Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and also helped expand its mission from a “normal school” (teacher’s college) to a full vocational college.  Tuskegee became a highly recognized institution and gained national attention (as did Washington).  He was the first African-American invited to the White House, both by Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft who sought his advice on racial matters.  With the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Washington’s influence in politics waned as Wilson was not interested in improving race relations.

In the south of the late nineteenth century, Washington knew that pushing too hard for equality could result in physical violence, including lynching.

Atlanta Compromise

Washington is probably best remembered for what came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise“. Addressing a racially mixed audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, Washington urged African-Americans to “cast down your bucket where you are.”  What he was urging African-Americans to do was to accept their position of subordination in the social and political spheres and concentrate on improving their lot through vocational education and agricultural pursuits.  His theory was that as blacks made economic advancement, they would become an indispensable element of southern society, and then social and political equality would naturally follow.  Washington’s compromise called on whites to allow economic advancement for African-Americans and in return blacks would not rock the boat (not become “uppity” in the vernacular of the day), but they would accept their position as inferiors and subordinate themselves to whites.  Washington didn’t particularly like this but believed it was a “necessary evil.”  A year later, in 1896, African-American subordination became no longer voluntary, but mandatory, as the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Plessy v Ferguson.  With the acknowledgement that the principle of “separate but equal” was constitutional, the Supreme Court in effect mandated a segregated society in the south that would exist for half a century.

His theory was that as blacks made economic advancement, they would become an indispensable element of southern society, and then social and political equality would naturally follow.

Booker T. and History

Booker T. Washington’s persona tends to remind us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  By being less threatening to whites than alternative philosophies allowed, both Washington and King could appeal to both African-Americans and moderate whites thus straddling the racial divide and significantly increasing their influence.  In Washington’s case, through a philosophy of accommodation and acquiescence, moderate whites felt less threatened and African-Americans saw distant hope for future equality.  In Dr. King’s case, his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience, while actively pushing for racial equality, was seen as less threatening to whites than the more militant alternatives.  Washington’s position was made significantly more difficult by the Supreme Court’s determination that the separate but equal delineation between the races was constitutional.  King’s position was made somewhat easier by the ruling in Brown v Board of Education that found the separate but equal philosophy unconstitutional and “inherently unequal“.  However, both Washington and King advocated positions that favored a slower pace toward equality than many opposition leaders in the African-American community were willing to tolerate.  As a result more militant approaches arose to advocate an accelerated push for total equality of the races.

By being less threatening to whites than alternative philosophies allowed, both Washington and King could appeal to both African-Americans and moderate whites thus straddling the racial divide and significantly increasing their influence.

W.E.B. Du Bois – An Alternative View

Challenging Booker T. Washington’s theory of accommodation and subordination was W.E.B. Du Bois.  Du Bois came from a background totally different from that of Washington.  Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts in a relatively liberal and tolerant society.  He attended Fisk University, Harvard, and the University of Berlin and was the first African-American to receive a doctorate.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, Du Bois became the leading (but by no means only) critic of Washington’s acquiescent policy of subordination and vocational education.  Instead, Du Bois called on the African-American community (and really the entire country) to encourage a classical education that would develop a cadre of strong leaders.  Du Bois believed this education of the “talented tenth” would actively move African-Americans toward equality.  In his own words, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”  Du Bois also believed that African-Americans should demand all of the citizens’ rights granted under the Fourteenth Amendment without delay.  In doing so, Du Bois’ philosophy posed a greater threat to segregated society than did Washington’s more docile position.  Du Bois’ view became formalized with the creation of the Niagara Movement in 1905 which morphed into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois also believed that African-Americans should demand all of the citizens’ rights granted under the Fourteenth Amendment without delay.

Just as Washington’s more docile philosophy, similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, was attractive to moderate whites, so Du Bois’ stance aliened moderate whites in much the same way that growing militancy of civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X of the 1960s (who called for the elimination of segregation by “any means necessary”) instilled a degree of fear in white society.

Du Bois’ stance aliened moderate whites in much the same way that growing militancy of civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X of the 1960s.

Moderate v. Militant

In essence, both Washington and Du Bois were speaking from experience.  They believed the path that led to their success was the path others should follow.  Booker T. Washington, raised in the south, pulled himself up by the bootstraps through hard work and vocational training.  Living in a segregationist and racist south, he understood that aggressive challenges to white dominance would, in all likelihood, lead to a violent response.  As African-Americans realized their economic potential, social and political equality would follow.  Du Bois, raised in the north’s more liberal and tolerant society and classically educated, believed that the Fourteenth Amendment gave African-Americans the immediate rights of full citizenship and pushed aggressively toward realizing that end.  He believed in the “talented tenth” receiving a classical education that would allow for the emergence of educated African-American leadership.  Relative to each other, they presented moderate and militant views similar to the relationship in the 1960s between the non-violent civil disobedience approach and the aggressive militancy of achieving equality by “any means necessary”.

In essence, both Washington and Du Bois were speaking from experience.  They believed the path that led to their success was the path others should follow.

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