Booker T Washington: Economic Czar for Black America
â€śI plead for industrial education and development for the Negro not because I want to cramp him, but because I want to free him. I want to see him enter the all-powerful business and commercial world.â€ť
-Booker T Washington
History and study has absolved Booker T Washington of the slanderous attack of being an â€śUncle Tomâ€ť or â€śsell-out Negro.â€ť Yet, this undeserved characterization and label of Washington has made him less attractive for study and questionable as a model for emulation.
Washingtonâ€™s politics, which largely accounts for the degradation of him, must be viewed in the context of terrorism and violence which was imposed on blacks as a way of maintaining white supremacy and keeping them oppressed or put another way subordinate in every aspect of life to whites. Given this, Washington developed his economic philosophy around the premise that black economic power would drive and determine political rights and full citizenship. â€śIt has been necessary,â€ť he asserted, for [blacks] to learn that all races that have got upon their feet have done so largely by laying an economic foundation, and, in general by beginning in a proper cultivation and ownership of the soil.â€ť
Washingtonâ€™s Economic Philosophy
Washington was keenly aware of the psychological damage of slavery on blacks with respect to dignity and work. Hence, he argued for the necessity of black people â€ślearning the difference between being worked and working- to learn that being worked meant degradation, while working means civilization; that all forms of labor are honorable, and all forms of idleness disgraceful.â€ť Â Washingtonâ€™s economic philosophy was ground the following principles:
- the dignity of all labor
- the primacy of the cultivation and ownership of land
- the primary of industrial education and development
- creation of wealth through work, ownership, and saving
- cultivation and continued development of the blackâ€™s technical and scientific and technical know-how
- building an industrial foundation as the material basis for the black economic development
Given the association of physical labor with slavery, this was an important principle. Washington observed more and more blacks retreating from the very work and trades which advantaged them in a post-slavery economy, noting, â€śSome years ago, when we decided to make tailoring a part of our training at the Tuskegee Institute, I was amazed to find that it was almost impossible to find in the whole country an educated colored man who could teach the making of clothing. We could find numbers of them who could teach astronomy, theology, Latin or grammar, but none who could instruct in the making of clothing, something that has to be used by every one of us every day in the year.â€ť
Washington astutely noted that the slave plantation was an industrial training school for blacks. Though not apologizing for slavery, he nevertheless observed that the â€śindustrial training on the plantation, left the Negro at the close of the [Civil War] in possession of nearly all the common and skilled labor in the South.â€ť He goes on to state:
For two-hundredÂ and fifty years, I believe the way for the redemption of the Negro was being prepared through industrial developmentâ€¦In most cases if a Southern white man wanted a house built he consulted a Negro mechanic about the plan and about the actual building of the structure. If he wanted a suit of clothes made he went to a Negro tailor, and for shoes he went to a shoemaker of the same race. In a certain way every plantation in the South was an industrial school. On these plantations young colored men and women were constantly being trained not only s farmers bur as carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laundresses, sewing woman and housekeepers.
Inasmuch as black were the most skilled in the professional trades which were the foundation for the industrial revolution and post-Civil War economy, Washington argued for an industrial plan of education and development as the cornerstone of black economic development and as the best and most probable way for blacks to â€śenter the all-powerful business and commercial world.â€ť This was the gateway to â€śhigher educationâ€ť and the development of the race.
Moreover, Washington contended that after the Civil War, blacks â€śbegan to development at the wrong end,â€ť emphasizing a â€śliberal educationâ€ť over industrial education and development. Industrial development he maintained would â€ścreate the wealth from which alone [would] come leisure and the opportunity for higher education.â€ť Frederick Douglass concurred with Washingtonâ€™s economic philosophy and plan observing:
Every blow of the sledge hammer wielded by a stable arm is a powerful blow in support of our cause. Every color mechanic is by virtue of circumstances and elevator of his race. Every house built by a black man is a strong tower against the allied host a prejudice. It is impossible for us to attach too much important to this aspect of the subject. Without industrial development there can be no wealth; without wealth there can be no leisure; without leisure no opportunity for thoughtful reflection and the cultivation of the higher arts.
To be sure, Washington was a results-oriented leader. His theory and plan of black economic development was empirically based. We must,â€ť Washington stated â€śre-enforce argument with results. One farm bought, one house builtâ€¦one man who is the largest tax payer or has the largest bank account, one school or church maintained, one factory running successfullyâ€¦one patient cured by a Negro doctor- these will tell more in our favor that all the abstract eloquence that can be summoned to plead our cause.â€ť
Booker T Washington was a leader and thinker of the first order. His philosophy of black economic development and education has been overshadowed by W.E.B. DuBoisâ€™ argument for a Talented Tenth- â€śdeveloping the Best of [the] race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.â€ť Yet, the trajectory of his plan for black economic development leads to todayâ€™s Silicon Valley- the technological vanguard of the hi-tech industry. Surely, with blacks possessing hi-tech skills on the order of Silicon Valley (note George Washington Carver and others); Washington envisioned the development of high-tech black economic centers located in the South. We salute his vision and model of black economic development.