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10 Facts About Booker T. Washington and Segregation You May Not Know

Seated studio portrait of American educator, economist and industrialist Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, early twentieth century. (Photo by Harris & Ewing/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

The Beginnings of Washington’s Ideas on Race and Economy

By 1882, the Alabama legislature approved $2,000 for the creation of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University. Armstrong was asked by the Alabama legislature to chose a white headmaster to run the school but Armstrong chose Washington. Since it was only a few years after the emancipation of Black people, many white legislatures were against his appointment.

Whites feared that Black people would become economic threats to them, and in an effort to appease them, Washington promised that would not happen.  In The Future of the American Negro published in 1899, Washington wrote, “The Negro has the right to study law, but success will come to the race sooner if it produces intelligent, thrifty farmers, mechanics, to support the lawyers.”



White People as Role Models 

Washington believed that Black people had to be subordinate to whites in order to be financially independent of them, so vocational training and manual work became the easiest and quickest way to earn money and build Black communities. Washington’s ideas on segregation were controversial and they were rooted in the idea that whites could serve as role models for Black people. He believed that white people could teach Black people to be “civilized,” as he stated in  My View of Segregation Laws  published in New Republic in December 1916.

“White people who argue for the segregation of the masses of black people forget the tremendous power of objective teaching. To hedge any set of people off in a corner and sally among them now and then with a lecture or a sermon is merely to add misery to degradation. But put the black man where day by day he sees how the white man keeps his lawns, his windows; how he treats his wife and children, and you will do more real helpful teaching than a whole library of lectures and sermons. Moreover, this will help the white man. If he knows that his life is to be taken as a model, that his hours, dress, manners, are all to be patterns for someone less fortunate, he will deport himself better than he would otherwise.”

The rest of the article points out the unjust nature of segregation, and Washington states that whites are not prevented from doing business in Black neighborhoods so they don’t fully commit to it. From the article, it’s evident he held a strong belief that both races could coexist, arguing that many politicians had been raised by Blacks and did not become “inferior,” so what makes the average white person any different?

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