Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps
On September 18th, 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered a speech calling for racial co-operation in front of a predominantly white crowd at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. This address, now known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” was given at a time when race-related terrorism and oppression against African-Americans was at an all time high.
“In all things purely social,” Washington proclaimed, “(blacks and whites) can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Although Washington did not explicitly call for complete political and social equality, he did encourage greater acceptance of blacks, who constituted 12 percent of the U.S. Population (and a third of the Southern states), into the Southern workforce.
In 1881, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, one of the primary institutions for the vocational training of Southern blacks. The Institute was initially formed as a school to train black teachers. It was the brainchild of Lewis Adams, a former slave with no formal education, who nevertheless rose to become a leader of the Macon County African-American community. Adams and George Campbell, a banker and former slaveholder, were committed to black education and hired the young Booker T. Washington as the school’s first teacher.
Washington imbued in the Institute a philosophy of self-reliance and racial-uplift through labor. Under Washington’s leadership, the Tuskegee Institute trained students in education and trade skills related to farming and construction. Students planted their own food and constructed many of the Institute’s early buildings as the school grew from a single abandoned chapel to the size of a plantation of over 2,200 acres by 1906. Washington also brought several important African-American professionals into Tuskegee, notably botanist and inventor George Washington Carver, and architects David A. Williston and Robert Taylor.
Despite his efforts, Washington was not without critics in the black community, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a journalist and early leader of the civil rights movement. Wells-Barnett argued that Washington’s ideas would lead to higher rates of lynching and white-on-black terrorism in the South, a phenomenon that was increasingly widespread between the 1890s and 1910s.
In her 1899 report “Lynch Law in Georgia,” Wells-Barnett also claimed that the lynching-culture of various Southern states was not rooted in a need to respond to increases in black crime. Instead, lynchings were often premeditated and committed out of a dissatisfaction with the competitive threat posed by successful black business people, many of whom were also politically active.
Booker T. Washington died in 1915 and was buried on the school’s grounds. With the advent of World War II, and the migration of millions of blacks North, Tuskegee Institute abandoned its agricultural programs. Instead, it developed a program with the U.S. Army Air Corps to train black pilots, known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
World War II was the first global conflict to make extensive use of aerial combat, and the Tuskegee Institute’s aviators were famed for the heroism they displayed on the front. The Tuskegee Airmen earned hundreds of air medals, a Distinguished Unit Citation and several silver and bronze stars. African-American men’s willingness to fight and die for their country demonstrated their deep commitment to America – despite their ill-treatment – the gravity of which became realized gradually over the post-war decades, especially during the civil rights movement.
In 1965, the Tuskegee Institute was designated a national historic landmark. By 1974, Congress authorized the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, which included Booker T. Washington’s home, and the G.W. Carver Museum.
Today, Washington’s emphasis on practical labor and self-reliance lives on in Tuskegee University’s strong scientific and technical programs. The curriculum has also been expanded to include programs in the liberal arts and Tuskegee University ranks as one of the top Regional Colleges (South) and HBCUs in the country.
Learn more about the history of American work ethic by listening to BackStory’s episode, “Nose To The Grindstone”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist