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In The Education of Booker T. Washington , Michael West offers a major reinterpretation of one of the most complex and controversial figures in American history. West reveals the personal and political dimensions of Washington's journey "up from slavery. West's work also establishes a groundwork for understanding the ideological origins of the civil rights movement and discusses Washington's views on the fate of race and nation in light of those of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr.

West argues that Washington's analysis was seen as offering a "solution" to the problem of racial oppression in a nation professing its belief in democracy. Sign In Forgot password?

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View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Related articles in Google Scholar. Citing articles via Google Scholar. Gillian M. In This Issue. Washington has earned at best mixed reviews in the decades since his death in Black intellectuals and political activists, from W. Du Bois to the present day, have generally seen Washington as a conservative racial accommodationist, yielding to the repressive power of Jim Crow and urging American blacks to abandon their political struggles for equality and instead to set their sights on a future of manual labor and petty property ownership.

Nothing brought Washington more notoriety than the speech that he delivered in at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta when, before a racially mixed audience, he appeared to acquiesce to the imperatives of legal segregation "in all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers" while encouraging African Americans to "cast down your buckets" in the Jim Crow South.

Although he is still read in college and some high school classes, usually against Du Bois, and remains in the pantheon of black historical figures, Washington is widely ridiculed and derided in black communities for his seemingly shameless pursuit of white favor. For many, he is the classic "Uncle Tom. Harlan, could not do much better than find at Washington's core a drive for personal power and a penchant for political manipulation.

Review: The Education of Booker T. Washington

And now that we are in the Age of Obama, when a man of African descent who set his sights on higher education and threw himself into grassroots politics--in short, who did many of the things that Washing- ton advised against--has been elected president of the United States, do we really need to reacquaint ourselves with the likes of Booker T. Do his life and views any longer have meaning for us? Do we need another biography? Robert J. Norrell clearly thinks we do. The author of several histories of race and the American South, including a fine study of the civil rights movement in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Washington flourished, Norrell believes that both the professional and popular wisdoms on Washington are seriously mistaken.

In his view, they overestimate the efficacy of protest as a vehicle for change and they underestimate the challenges that Washington faced. Americans, Norrell writes, have lost touch not only with the idea of educational, moral, and economic development as a means for integrating disadvantaged groups in the modern world, but also with the memory of how fiercely Southern whites contested the developmental projects that Washington devised. In Booker T. Washington, Norrell sees a sophisticated mind, a complex approach to social problems, and admirable goals for the people he sought to lead, all in a world that set profound limits on what he could expect to achieve.

Rather than take the potentially suicidal path of resistance or simply concede the fight, Washington offered hope and optimism, together with an effort to rise above history itself. But who, we might ask, benefitted from his offer, and how? Booker T. Washington lived an extraordinary life, as he was among the first to recognize.

Indeed, much of what we know about his early years comes to us by way of two autobiographies that he published just after the turn of the twentieth century, The Story of My Life and Work , and the far better-known Up from Slavery. Both celebrated Washington's rise to the leadership of his race and provided powerful lessons as to how the perilous world of the late nineteenth century might be successfully navigated.

Although Norrell does not uncover anything really new in the details, it is hard not to marvel at the ascent. Washington's origins were as humble as any American origins could be. He was born a slave in on a small plantation in western Virginia. His father was a white man whose identity he claimed was never revealed to him, and his mother, Jane, was a slave who struggled mightily to protect and nurture her three children, and to instill the values of hard work and thrift.


By , those prayers were answered, and Jane quickly gathered up the children and headed to the industrial village of Malden, West Virginia, two hundred miles away, where her husband, Wash Ferguson, had found a job in the local saltworks. Although Booker he had no surname at this point initially went to work with Ferguson at the saltworks and then, for a time, in nearby coal mines family economies were the basis of survival for most laboring people in the United States , his great desire was for an education.

Stepfather Ferguson saw no purpose in the idea and was especially mindful of the lost income. But Jane helped her son gain the rudiments of literacy and then persuaded her husband to allow Booker to go to school if he would do an early shift at the saltworks. Enrolling in school set him on a better path and, not incidentally, required that he have a surname: he chose "Washington," which Norrell suggests associated him forever with the American nation and its founder, but was also the first name of his stepfather. He later added Taliaferro as a middle name, which his mother had apparently given him shortly after his birth.

Far more important than school in advancing Washington's prospects was a job that he secured owing to Jane's inquiries as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the New England—born wife of Lewis Ruffner, who owned the saltworks, had been a general in the Union Army, and was the town's leading Republican. A former English teacher herself, Mrs. Ruffner developed a close and trusting relationship with Washington. Like his mother Jane, she emphasized values of self-reliance, thrift, sobriety, and accountability, and she promoted his education not only by giving him time off to attend school but also by helping him to refine his verbal skills.

For his part, Washington learned the importance of doing jobs properly and promptly, and began to develop new ambitions and a sense of self-confidence.

e*leu`ther*o*ma"ni*a | noun | a mania or frantic zeal for freedom. | [R.] Carlyle.

He also learned about the very tense political world of the post-emancipation South, as Lewis Ruffner's Republicans became targets of vigilante terrorism. What turned out to be four years at the Ruffners thereby taught Washington valuable lessons about getting along with white people and the dangers of participating in politics.

Ironically enough, it was from two black coal miners, not from the Ruffners or his school teachers, that Washington learned of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, located near Norfolk, Virginia, a teacher- and vocational-training school for black students that enabled the poorer among them to work for their tuition and board. Feeling readied by his time with the Ruffners and eager to better himself, Washington cobbled together a little money from family and friends and headed off on what was a five-hundred-mile journey.

He arrived at Hampton with a scant fifty cents in his pocket. He was sixteen years old.

Hampton Institute represented an important front in the cultural reconstruction of the former Confederate South--designed not so much to reunite the nation politically or to rebuild the South economically but to transform, or "civilize," the South, and especially its former slave population. For years, anti-slavery Northerners had portrayed the slave South as economically backward and culturally retrograde, a blight on the nation's progress.

And even if they did not believe that African Americans were innately inferior to whites as most did , they nonetheless thought that the experience of enslavement had left them mired in ignorance, superstition, and profligacy. The project, therefore, was not only to ensure the demise of slavery but also to uplift the former slaves, to instruct them in proper conduct, self-discipline, the useful arts, family responsibility, and Christian values. Founded in on the site of a wartime contraband or fugitive slave camp, Hampton was headed up by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a Union Army general who had commanded black troops and then served in the Freedmen's Bureau.

Born to Christian missionaries in Hawaii, he seemed to have imbibed their paternalist disposition to lend helping hands to those they regarded as intellectually and morally inferior. For Armstrong, Hampton's task was to advance black folk along an evolutionary path by enabling them to develop labor skills and economic independence. He had little interest in the classical curriculum and instead was satisfied with courses in English, mathematics, biology, and history.

Most of all, he hoped to promote good character and work habits. As Norrell notes, it was little better than a modern middle-school education. Washington thrived. He may have seen in Armstrong the white father figure he hoped would claim him, and he certainly appears to have been influenced by Armstrong's Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, not to mention his anti-Catholicism.

Most consequentially, Washington caught Armstrong's attention and was chosen as one of Hampton's graduation speakers in Then, after brief stints teaching school back in Malden, reading law, and attending theological seminary, he was called back to Hampton in to give the commencement address. Armstrong was so impressed with Washington's speech "The Force that Wins" that he hired him at Hampton and began to groom him for educational leadership.

In early , having been asked to recommend a white man to run a newly established black normal school in rural Tuskegee, Alabama, Armstrong instead recommended Washington, "the best man we ever had here. When Washington arrived in the Alabama black belt in June of , he had to start from scratch.

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What would become the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had neither a building in which to hold classes nor students to attend them. But he quickly arranged to use the local Zion Negro Church, a log structure, and then traversed the countryside in search of student recruits. Washington organized the curriculum around his and Armstrong's view of the educational basics: grammar and composition, history, geography, arithmetic, and--by no means least--hygiene.

Those students who could not afford the school fees were put to work building and farming. Before the s were out, Tuskegee had about five hundred students male and female , twenty-five teachers all from Hampton , and, owing to money that he raised annually mostly in the Northeast and the hard work of the school community, a campus of nearly seven hundred acres with classrooms, dormitories, a foundry, a blacksmith shop, and fields sown in market and subsistence crops.

Unobtrusive as he tried to be in conducting the business of Tuskegee, Washington recognized the need to cultivate the good graces of the local white elite. Tuskegee was in the heart of a black-majority district, but Reconstruction had already been overthrown and white Democrats had re-asserted their political power, often through paramilitary means. Washington invited the local white merchant Thomas Dryer to join the school's board of trustees, and did what he could to promote an image of Tuskegee as a "model community" nurturing peace and mutual good will between the races.

Even so--and this is Norrell's main brief for reconsidering Washington-- there was little peace or good will to be found among those he calls "white nationalists.

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The white nationalists had moved to enforce black submission in the aftermath of emancipation; they had organized to harass, drive out, or murder black political activists; and they looked with profound suspicion on any project to educate and advance black people. Washington would have to tread both carefully and creatively, avoiding conflict and confrontation while spinning fictions of racial harmony and respect.