Economics Holds the Key to Black America’s Success
For the past 10 years you have seen the image of, or the words of, Dr. Booker T. Washington on these pages. That is because he promoted values I believe to be of great importance--values that do not seem to get the attention they deserve in the black community today.
Washington believed in the importance of economic values: economic independence, self-reliance, property ownership. He said, “At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, at the bottom of religion, there must be for black folks, economic independence.”
It would be difficult to find a leader and educator at the turn of the twentieth century who better represented the black middle class. Washington believed blacks would benefit most by building an economic foundation within the community, before focusing on politics as a route to the American dream. Given the failure of Reconstruction politics, in the Southern states in particular, Washington’s approach seemed very logical.
In 1908, Kelly Miller, Johns Hopkins University scholar and dean at Howard University, sought to describe black leadership at the turn of the century. Miller viewed Booker T. Washington and his followers as conservatives, a category that for Miller included the business class, educators, and the common folk. A professor of history at Columbia University also called Washington “conservative,” writing, “the social forces that produced a conservative Booker T. Washington and an entire generation of conservative educators stemmed from the Civil War and the collapse of Reconstruction.”
George S. Schuyler wrote, “The Negro is a prime example of the survival of the fittest. ... He has been the outstanding example of American conservatism: adjustable, resourceful, adaptable, patient, restrained. It is why the Negro will always be here.”
To these scholars, “conservative” had nothing to do with politics. In fact, in many ways it was the opposite of politics, because conservative blacks like Washington believed in economic power, not political power. The New Coalition was founded to help remind the black community of the importance of economic power.
Booker T. Washington rose from slavery to a position of power and much influence. He became the most important black leader of his time. He was the founder of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. When Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee was the best-known black school in America, educating blacks from Alabama to Africa.
He committed his life to improving the lives of blacks wherever they were. Washington advocated economic independence through self-help, hard work, and a practical education. He urged his race to do the things possible, rather than whine and pine over things outside of their control at the time: In short, live well today, for the future will be better. Though some thought Washington was opposed to higher education, he was a trustee of both Fisk and Howard Universities--each founded by white males. His daughter attended private schools in the East.
Washington’s greatest day was September 18, 1895 when he delivered his now-famous speech at the opening of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. Black American historian Rayford Logan called it “one of the most effective pieces of political oratory in the history of the United States.” He said “structurally it was a model of organization, unity, and brevity.” Frederick Douglass had died just seven months earlier. That day Washington filled the vacuum in black leadership, admittedly with a style different than that of his hero, Douglass.
In 1896, Washington spoke at the Harvard University Commencement exercises. He was conferred the M.A. degree. This was the first time a black had ever received an honorary degree from a white university. In 1901, Dartmouth College conferred on Washington an honorary Doctorate degree, another first. Also in 1901, he was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to dinner at the White House with his family.
An Important Life
This summer marks the 148th anniversary of the birth of Booker T. Washington, and we celebrate the first black in the Hall of Fame; the first black to appear on a U.S. coin; the first on a U.S. postage stamp; the first to have a battleship named after him. Tuskegee was the first black college to be visited by a U.S. President, William McKinley.
In 1984, a two-volume biography on Washington, written by Louis Harlan, represented another first: It was the first biography about a black to win a Pulitzer Prize. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901 and is an American classic; it has been printed in more than 18 languages and has never been out of print.
When Booker T. Washington’s papers were received at the Library of Congress in 1943 and 1945, only a few men had more items than him. His papers included letters from men such as Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, President Theodore Roosevelt, Julius Rosenwald, President William Howard Taft, J.P. Morgan, and many others.
In 1994, Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell described the day of Washington’s 1895 Atlanta speech as “one of the toughest hands dealt to any black leader in American history.
“For a black man to be invited to address the distinguished audience at the Exposition was itself controversial,” Sowell explained. “The South was a tinderbox of raw emotions over racial issues and more than a hundred blacks a year were being lynched. Voting rights, the right to serve in public office or on juries, and even basic personal security against violence were rights that Southern blacks once enjoyed ... [but] were now eroding.” Sowell further writes, “Booker T. Washington blazed forth as a black leader of character and strength. Why is he today so often reviled as an ‘Uncle Tom’?”
John Sibley Butler, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin, published a recent essay on Washington titled, “Why Booker T. Washington Was Right.”
Washington was a man of his times, and he knew his role was “to prepare and build.” His lesson for us today is we must have “character and strength to be equipped to compete.”
Lee Walker is founder and director of The New Coalition. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.