He seems to have been a man at peace with himself. As his biographer Louis R. Harlan points out, most photographs of Booker T. Washington show him relaxed, even when others in the picture are stiffly posed. His general bearing was, in Professor Harlan's words, "modest but too dignified to be humble."
Washington neither grinned nor shuffled for white folks, and he was hated by racist bigots in the South. When he had dinner in the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt, there were cries of outrage from across the South, and echoes reverberated for years afterward.
On some occasions, a Pinkerton guard accompanied Washington through redneck territory, and once two black men who had gone to hear him speak were lynched and their bodies hung where the whites thought Booker T. Washington would be sure to see them. He had a tough hand to play and he played it like a master.
Washington and Du Bois were much closer than their public postures would indicate, though Du Bois may not have known how much common ground there was between them. Just as the private Booker T. Washington must be taken into account along with the public image he projected, so it must be noted that W. E. B. Du Bois was, during Washington's lifetime, not yet the far-left radical of his later Stalinist years.
Nevertheless, the rivalry between the two men - and between their partisans - was both real and sometimes bitter. In part this mirrored a social division within the black community between the freed plantation slaves and their descendants, on the one hand, and the more polished descendants of the "free persons of color" who had been educated for generations. A disproportionate share of the black leadership came from this small elite and continued to do so on past the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, there were skin color differences between the two groups, of which both were acutely aware, for many of the "free persons of color" became free because they were the offspring of white slave masters and black slave women.
The social snobbishness of this lighter-complexioned elite was as real as the racism of whites - and was sometimes more deeply resented by the black masses, some of whom referred to the NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. In a sense, Du Bois and Washington epitomized these differences. Du Bois, with his Ph.D. from Harvard, was aloof and of aristocratic bearing and had little to do socially with the black masses in whose name he spoke. Nor was this a purely personal foible. Washington described other contemporaries as members of the "upper ten" who "very seldom mingle with the masses."
Washington himself had much more of the common touch and mingled easily with other blacks in the cities and backwoods of the South. His talk and his writings were plain and straightforward, lacking the erudition and rhetorical flourishes of Du Bois, but full of tough-minded common sense.
While Du Bois was an intellectual, Washington was shrewd, perhaps the shrewdest of all the black leaders in American history. While Du Bois discussed racial issues on a high moral plane of abstract rights, Washington put his emphasis on developing skills within the black community for a very down-to-earth reason: "In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants."
The self-interest of whites, rather than any moral commitment on their part to the rights of blacks, was what Washington depended on for the advancement of his people. Although caricatured by some as an Uncle Tom, this complex man was seen very differently by those who actually knew him. It was none other than W. E. B. Du Bois who said of Booker T. Washington: "He had no faith in white people, not the slightest." Washington used their money, however, to advance the causes he believed in and used his influence to get support not only for Tuskegee Institute but even for rival black institutions like Talladega College and Atlanta University, and he served on the board of trustees for Howard and Fisk universities, whose educational missions were very different from his own.
The rivalry between Du Bois and Washington was not based simply on different educational or political approaches, nor even on differences in the social strata from which they came. They held very different amounts of power and influence. Because Booker T. Washington was the black leader to many whites with wealth and power, he became the arbiter of the fates of other blacks seeking access to funding for their projects or influence in political circles. Du Bois, for example, left his teaching position at Atlanta University when his opposition to Booker T. Washington made him a financial liability to the institution.
Washington's "Tuskegee machine" was a force to be reckoned with within the black community and a force to be feared and resented by those blacks who were seeking a larger role for themselves. Washington's influence - and money - reached black newspapers across the country and his followers were active, both publicly and behind the scenes, in the North as well as the South.
No one was more keenly aware of the severe limits within which he operated, especially when he operated publicly, than Booker T. Washington. He wrote to Oswald Garrison Villard, one of the founders of the NAACP, "There is work to be done which no one placed in my position can do." He realized the time-bound nature of his mission. He said, "We are doing work that is needed to be done in this generation and in this section of our country." He also said: "I have never attempted to set any limit upon the development of our race" and said of two generation of blacks that "their children will be given advantages which the first generation did not possess." He saw his task as being to "lay the foundation" in his own time, not to provide an educational blue-print - or straitjacket - for all time.
What was accomplished by this man and by the movement he led? Tuskegee Institute was, of course, his most tangible legacy, its early buildings built by the students themselves, using the skills taught to them. The larger legacy - the people who learned such practical lessons as how to take care of their money and their health and how to conduct themselves in public - are things difficult to gauge and impossible to quantify. Neither the internal development stressed by Booker T. Washington nor the quest for civil rights that preoccupied W. E. B. Du Bois has ever been entirely off the agenda of black Americans, though their relative priorities have varied from one era to another and from one organization or movement within a given era.
Ultimately, there was no reason vocational training and academic education could not both go on, as they both did - indeed, as they both did at Tuskegee Institute, including in classes taught by Booker T. Washington. The needless dissipation of energies in internal strife between the followers of Du Bois and the followers of Washington was an extravagant luxury in an era when blacks could easily have used ten more of each.
Despite today's insatiable demands for "solutions" to racial and other social problems, it would be almost a contradiction in terms to try to "apply" Booker T. Washington directly to our times. He was, consciously and above all else, a man of his time. He saw his role quite clearly as preparatory and his work as building a foundation, not providing models for the future. Only the character and strength of the man are a model for today.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on a Franklin County, Va. plantation. In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, he wrote: "I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time." Probably he was born in 1856.
He remembered his life as beginning "in the midst of the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings." His mother was the plantation cook, and the cabin occupied by Washington, his mother and a brother and sister was also the plantation kitchen. Of his father Washington said: "He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time."
After the Civil War, Washington and his family were declared free and later moved to Malden, W. Va., where he labored in the coal mines until he heard two men talking about Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where blacks could learn usefull skills. There he determined to go. But first he needed a few dollars. That he earned by working as a servant to a general's wife. There, he later said he learned lessons about the bigger world "as valuable to me as any education I have ever gotten." In 1875 he graduated from Hampton. His passion for education and self-improvement never wavered.
When General Samuel C. Armstrong, the founder of Hampton, was asked to recommend someone to found a normal school "for the coloured people in the little town of Tuskegee," he recommended Washington.
Washington soon concluded that the freed slaves of rural Alabama needed more than "mere book education," which he felt would be a waste of time until they had learned more basic things.
With a little - but very little - help from the Alabama legislature, Washington was able to open the doors of the Tuskegee Normal and Agricultural Institute on July 4, 1881.
His brilliant speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition may well have been the high point of his career. The speech was well received among white Americans but criticized by many black intellectuals, who wished him to be more militant in calling for rights. He died in Tuskegee, Ala. in 1915.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born a free black man in Great Barrington, Mass. on Feb. 23,1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. He was of French, Dutch and African descent and grew up with the middle-class values of the day, believing that "all who were willing to work could easily earn a living."
Urged by his high school principal, Frank Hosmer, Du Bois took subjects that few black boys of his day took, not even those of Du Bois' relatively privileged background: algebra, geometry, Latin and Greek. "If Hosmer had been another sort of man, with definite ideas as to a Negro's 'place,'" Du Bois later wrote, he never would have gotten that sort of education.
Du Bois dreamed of Harvard, but lacked both the money and the academic record. To better prepare himself he first graduated from Fisk University, then moved to Harvard, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1890, a master's in 1891 and a Ph.D. in 1895.
Though Du Bois was born and bred in the North, he went south to teach, serving as a professor of sociology at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910 and from 1934 to 1944. In the South he wrote The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade (1896) and The Philadelphia Negro (1899). One of his best-known works, The Souls of Black Folk, was written in 1903.
As time passed, Du Bois became more militant. After World War I he called Pan-African congresses in 1919, 1921 and 1923. He helped form the Niagara Movement, calling for full voting rights for blacks under the banner of "manhood suffrage." He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the editor of its magazine, Crisis.
As the years passed, Jim Crow endured and blacks continued to be denied the full rights of U.S. citizens. Du Bois despaired of achieving equality for his people under the capitalist system. He turned, as many angry intellectuals did earlier in this century, to communism, thinking it could solve the problems not only of blacks but of poor whites as well. Communism, he wrote, "was a program for a majority, not for a relatively small minority." He did not, however, endorse the Russian version. "American Negroes," he said, should not accept unquestioningly, "a complete dogma without question or alteration."
In 1962, still frustrated and angry at the age of 94, he gave up his U. S. citizenship and moved to Ghana, in West Africa, where he became a naturalized citizen. He died in 1963, not living to see the Civil Rights Movement achieve many of the goals he strove in vain for.