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 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. If William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, or George L. Stearns were alive to-day, I feel sure that he would advise the Negroes to identify their interests as closely as possible with those of their white neighbors, -- always understanding that no question of right and wrong is involved. In no other way, it seems to me, can we get a foundation for peace and progress. He who advises against this policy will advise the Negro to do that which no people in history, who have succeeded, have done. The white man, North or South, who advises the Negro against it advises him to do that which he himself has not done. 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.

[2] 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? And does the Southern white man want him to improve it? The latter part of this question I shall attempt to answer later in this article. . . .

[3] 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. The man who has learned to do something better than any one else, has learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner, has power and influence which no adverse surroundings can take from him. It is better to show a man how to make a place for himself than to put him in one that some one else has made for him. The Negro who can make himself so conspicuous as a successful farmer, a large taxpayer, a wise helper of his fellow men, as to be placed in a position of trust and honor by natural selection, whether the position be political or not, is a hundredfold more secure in that position than one placed there by mere outside force or pressure. I know a Negro, Hon. Isaiah T. Montgomery, in Mississippi, who is mayor of a town; it is true that the town is composed almost wholly of Negroes. Mr. Montgomery is mayor of this town because his genius, thrift, and foresight have created it; and he is held and supported in his office by a charter granted by the state of Mississippi, and by the vote and public sentiment of the community in which he lives.

[4] 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. . . .

[5] 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. . . .

[6] To state in detail just what place the black man will occupy in the South as a citizen, when he has developed in the direction named, is beyond the wisdom of any one. Much will depend upon the sense of justice which can be kept alive in the breast of the American people; almost as much will depend upon the good sense of the Negro himself. That question, I confess, does not give me the most concern just now. The important and pressing question is, Will the Negro, with his own help and that of his friends, take advantage of the opportunities that surround him? When he has done this, I believe, speaking of his future in general terms, that he will be treated with justice, be given the protection of the law and the recognition which his usefulness and ability warrant. If, fifty years ago, one had predicted that the Negro would receive the recognition and honor which individuals have already received, he would have been laughed at as an idle dreamer. Time, patience, and constant achievement are great factors in the rise of a race.

[7] 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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