Booker T. Washington
"The Case of the Negro"

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center.

The Republicans, the party of Lincoln, led the effort to reconstruct the South. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made slavery unconstitutional, the Fifteenth Amendment provided that no one was to be denied the right to vote on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," and the Civil Rights Act recognized the full citizenship of African Americans and their equal civil rights. In the years of Reconstruction (c. 1866-1877), African Americans exercised their right to vote, and African Americans were elected to local, state, and national offices. In the "Compromise of 1877," the Republicans abandoned Reconstruction, federal troops were removed from the South, and the rule of conservative white Democrats was restored in the South. Gradually, the gains of the African Americans were whittled away. By 1900, blacks experienced systematic discrimination. Black voting rights and civil rights were restricted or ignored; segregation and "Jim Crow" laws were enforced; and violence against blacks became common. Most African Americans remained poor, propertyless tenant farmers or sharecroppers, though a small black middle class did emerge. Within the African American community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was vigorous debate about the objectives and strategies for blacks to pursue. Booker T. Washington emerged as the most prominent black leader. He believed that most blacks would have to make their living by manual labor, and, with hard work and self help, could improve their condition. He founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school that specialized in vocational training in agriculture and skilled trades.

[1] In order that we may concentrate our forces upon a wise object, without loss of time or effort, I want to suggest what seems to me and many others the wisest policy to be pursued. I have reached these conclusions not only by reason of my own observations and experience, but after eighteen years of direct contact with leading and influential colored and white men in most parts of our country. But I wish first to mention some elements of danger in the present situation, which all who desire the permanent welfare of both races in the South should carefully take into account.

[2] First. There is danger that a certain class of impatient extremists among the Negroes in the North, who have little knowledge of the actual conditions in the South, may do the entire race injury by attempting to advise their brethren in the South to resort to armed resistance or the use of the torch, in order to secure justice. All intelligent and well-considered discussion of any important question, or condemnation of any wrong, whether in the North or the South, from the public platform and through the press, is to be commended and encouraged; but ill-considered and incendiary utterances from black men in the North will tend to add to the burdens of our people in the South rather than to relieve them. We must not fall into the temptation of believing that we can raise ourselves by abusing some one else.

[3] Second. Another danger in the South which should be guarded against is that the whole white South, including the wise, conservative, law-abiding element, may find itself represented before the bar of public opinion by the mob or lawless element, which gives expression to its feelings and tendency in a manner that advertises the South throughout the world; while too often those who have no sympathy with such disregard of law are either silent, or fail to speak in a sufficiently emphatic manner to offset in any large degree the unfortunate reputation which the lawless have made for many portions of the South.

[4] Third. No race or people ever got upon its feet without severe and constant struggle, often in the face of the greatest discouragement. While passing through the present trying period of its history, there is danger that a large and valuable element of the Negro race may become discouraged in the effort to better its condition. Every possible influence should be exerted to prevent this.

[5] Fourth. There is a possibility that harm may be done to the South and to the Negro by exaggerated newspaper articles which are written near the scene or in the midst of specially aggravating occurrences. Often these reports are written by newspaper men, who give the impression that there is a race conflict throughout the South, and that all Southern white people are opposed to the Negro's progress; overlooking the fact that though in some sections there is trouble, in most parts of the South, if matters are not yet in all respects as we would have them, there is nevertheless a very large measure of peace, good will, and mutual helpfulness. In the same relation, much can be done to retard the progress of the Negro by a certain class of Southern white people, who in the midst of excitement speak or write in a manner that gives the impression that all Negroes are lawless, untrustworthy, and shiftless. . . .

[6] Fifth. Owing to the lack of school opportunities for the Negro in the rural districts of the South, there is danger that ignorance and idleness may increase to the extent of giving the Negro race a reputation for crime, and that immorality may eat its way into the fibre of the race so as to retard its progress for many years. In judging the Negro we must not be too harsh. We must remember that it has been only within the last thirty-four years that the black father and mother have had the responsibility, and consequently the experience, of training their own children. That perfection has not been reached in one generation, with the obstacles that the parents have been compelled to overcome, is not to be wondered at. . . .

[7] Now as to the policy that should be pursued. On this subject I claim to possess no superior wisdom or unusual insight. I may be wrong; I may be in some degree right.

[8] In the future we want to impress upon the Negro, more than we have done in the past, the importance of identifying himself more closely with the interests of the South; of making himself part of the South, and at home in it. Heretofore, for reasons which were natural, and for which no one is especially to blame, the colored people have been too much like a foreign nation residing in the midst of another nation. . . . . The bed rock upon which every individual rests his chances for success in life is the friendship, the confidence, the respect, of his next-door neighbor in the little community in which he lives. The problem of the Negro in the South turns on whether he can make himself of such indispensable service to his neighbor and the community that no one can fill his place better in the body politic. There is at present no other safe course for the black man to pursue. If the Negro in the South has a friend in his white neighbor, and a still larger number of friends in his own community, he has a protection and a guarantee of his rights that will be more potent and more lasting than any our Federal Congress or any outside power can confer.

[9] We must admit the stern fact that at present the Negro, through no choice of his own, is living in the midst of another race, which is far ahead of him in education, property, and experience; and further, that the Negro's present condition makes him dependent upon the white people for most of the things necessary to sustain life, as well as, in a large measure, for his education. In all history, those who have possessed the property and intelligence have exercised the greatest control in government, regardless of color, race, or geographical location. This being the case, how can the black man in the South improve his estate? . . . .

[10] The Negro in the South has it within his power, if he properly utilizes the forces at land, to make of himself such a valuable factor in the life of the South that for the most part he need not seek privileges, but they will be conferred upon him. To bring this about, the Negro must begin at the bottom and lay a sure foundation, and not be lured by any temptation into trying to rise on a false footing. While the Negro is laying this foundation, he will need help and sympathy and justice from the law. Progress by any other method will be but temporary and superficial, and the end of it will be worse than the beginning. American slavery was a great curse to both races, and I should be the last to apologize for it; but in the providence of God I believe that slavery laid the foundation for the solution of the problem that is now before us in the South. Under slavery, the Negro was taught every trade, every industry, that furnishes the means of earning a living. Now if on this foundation, laid in a rather crude way, it is true, but a foundation nevertheless, we can gradually grow and improve, the future for us is bright. Let me be more specific. Agriculture is or has been the basic industry of nearly every race or nation that has succeeded. The Negro got a knowledge of this under slavery: hence in a large measure he is in possession of this industry in the South to-day. Taking the whole South, I should say that eighty per cent of the Negroes live by agriculture in some form, though it is often a very primitive and crude form. The Negro can buy land in the South, as a rule, wherever the white man can buy it, and at very low prices. Now, since the bulk of our people already have a foundation in agriculture, are at their best when living in the country engaged in agricultural pursuits, plainly, the best thing, the logical thing, is to turn the larger part of our strength in a direction that will put the Negroes among the most skilled agricultural people in the world. . . . T

[11] Let us help the Negro by every means possible to acquire such an education in farming, dairying, stock-raising, horticulture, etc., as will place him near the top in these industries, and the race problem will in a large part be settled, or at least stripped of many of its most perplexing elements. This policy would also tend to keep the Negro in the country and smaller towns, where he succeeds best, and stop the influx into the large cities, where he does not succeed so well. The race, like the individual, which produces something of superior worth that has a common human interest, wins a permanent place, and is bound to be recognized. . . .

[12] But I may be asked, Would you confine the Negro to agriculture, mechanics, the domestic arts, etc.? Not at all; but just now and for a number of years the stress should be laid along the lines that I have mentioned. We shall need and must have many teachers and ministers, some doctors and lawyers and statesmen, but these professional men will have a constituency or a foundation from which to draw support just in proportion as the race prospers along the economic lines that I have pointed out. During the first fifty or one hundred years of the life of any people, are not the economic occupations always given the greater attention? This is not only the historic, but, I think, the common-sense view. If this generation will lay the material foundation, it will be the quickest and surest way for enabling later generations to succeed in the cultivation of the fine arts, and to surround themselves with some of the luxuries of life, if desired. What the race most needs now, in my opinion, is a whole army of men and women well-trained to lead, and at the same time devote themselves to agriculture, mechanics, domestic employment, and business. As to the mental training that these educated leaders should be equipped with, I should say, give them all the mental training and culture that the circumstances of individuals will allow, -- the more the better. No race can permanently succeed until its mind is awakened and strengthened by the ripest thought. But I would constantly have it kept in the minds of those who are educated in books that a large proportion of those who are educated should be so trained in hand that they can bring this mental strength and knowledge to bear upon the physical conditions in the South, which I have tried to emphasize.

[13] I do not believe that the world ever takes a race seriously, in its desire to share in the government of a nation, until a large number of individual members of that race have demonstrated beyond question their ability to control and develop their own business enterprises. Once a number of Negroes rise to the point where they own and operate the most successful farms, are among the largest taxpayers in their county, are moral and intelligent, I do not believe that in many portions of the South such men need long be denied the right of saying by their votes how they prefer their property to be taxed, and who are to make and administer the laws . . . .

Booker T. Washington.

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