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Tuskegee Institute--Training Leaders

What’s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Biography: Booker T. Washington

Biography: W.E.B. Du Bois

Probing Further

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Tuskegee History Class

What's the Main Idea

Object Description

Tuskegee Institute was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 under a charter from the Alabama legislature for the purpose of training teachers in Alabama. Tuskegee's program provided students with both academic and vocational training. The students, under Washington's direction, built their own buildings, produced their own food, and provided for most of their own basic necessities. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills that they could share with African American communities throughout the South.

Frances Benjamin Johnston was commissioned to photograph Tuskegee in 1902. This photograph shows a history class learning about Native Americans and Captain John Smith in Virginia.


Booker T. Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia, on April 5, 1856. In spite of the fact that it was illegal to teach enslaved blacks to read and write, Washington was able to obtain a primary education, and subsequently entered Hampton Institute in the fall of 1872. He proved to be an exemplary student, and over the years, an equally respectable teacher and speaker. The principal of Hampton Institute was so fond of Washington that he recommended him to a group of Alabama legislators as a viable candidate for director of an African American school that they wanted to establish in their state. In 1881, Washington became president of that Alabama school, known as Tuskegee Institute, which he and fellow colleagues built from a little shanty and church to a major educational institution for blacks.

Primarily a training ground for teachers, Tuskegee's program provided students with both academic and vocational training. As a result of Washington's work as an educator and public speaker, he became the most prominent African American leader in the United States between 1895-1915. In one of his most famous speeches called the "Atlanta Compromise", which was given in Atlanta at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, Washington spoke about the black struggle and quest for equality, stating "in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington's views were diametrically opposed to that of the more radical beliefs held by Frederick Douglass and Northerner W.E.B. Du Bois. These two men, and other critics of Washington's were disappointed that he had de-emphasized racism, racial violence against blacks, and discrimination, and was later rebuked for being an accommodationist. In this same speech, Washington declared that African Americans must take responsibility for their own advancement, and urged vocational training over academic studies believing that the masses would earn a living by using their hands. He also favored both literacy tests and property qualifications for voting privileges thinking that this would encourage African American to obtain an education and wealth. Washington became the most influential African American leader of his day.

W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. After attending Fisk University, Du Bois became the first black person to receive a Ph.D. in the social sciences from Harvard. His profound beliefs in vigourously promoting and uplifting African Americans into American society radically differed from that of his elder colleague, Booker T. Washington. Du Bois challenged Washington by calling his ideologies too passive and accommodating, and voiced concern that a move toward industrial and vocational education as way in which blacks could become self-supporting was misguided. Du Bois favored instead a strategy of ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality. He pressed for immediate social and political integration and higher education for a "Talented Tenth" of the black population. This segment of the black "intelligentsia" would then return to their communities and become leaders for other blacks. Du Bois was a strong proponent of educating group leaders who would be responsible for setting the ideals of the community within which they lived.

In 1905, Du Bois and other black intellectuals, including two women, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, formed the Niagara Movement in rejection to Washington's ideals. The organization's objective called for "full citizenship rights for blacks and public recognition of their contributions to America's stability and progress." Suffering from poor finances and a policy that restricted membership to intellectuals only, in 1909, the Niagara Movement became known as the National Negro Committee, which one year later adopted its present name, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As the editor of the NAACP's monthly magazine The Crisis, and as one of the organization's most prominent leaders, Du Bois continued to actively promote and protest discrimination on behalf of all African Americans. After becoming a subject of McCarthyism, accused and acquitted of being an unregistered foreign agent, because of his activism against using atomic bombs and his involvement with other peace time initiatives, Du Bois move to Ghana in 1961. He died there on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the historic March on Washington.

Probing Further

  1. Booker T. Washington came under intense criticism from his black peers, because of his philosophies on how African Americans could achieve their quest for full citizenship. Washington's critics disagreed that African Americans should forego challenging segregation and disfranchisement laws, and that it was more important for African Americans to learn a trade so that they become capable of supporting themselves economically, rather than emphasizing the importance of obtaining an education. What was Du Bois's approach toward racial equality? Were there any similarities between the beliefs held by Washington and Du Bois? Do you think that because Washington lived his entire life in the South that his perspective of blacks living in that region of the country, differed from Du Bois who was raised, educated, and lived all but a few years of his life in the North? What effect do you think regionalism, living in the South vs the North, had on blacks at the turn of the century?
    Go to Industrial Education to learn more about Washington's views on the Tuskegee Institute.

  2. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were permitted. This ruling was a severe setback in what had already been determined by the Fourteenth Amendment (1867), which had provided blacks equal protection under the law. Confederate states were forced to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment as a condition for readmission into the Union. Knowing what you know about Jim Crow laws and the "separate but equal" decree, how might have this Tuskegee history classroom of black students differed from that of their white peers'?

  3. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of Booker T. Washington's most outspoken critics. Her greatest fear was that if African Americans were to follow his ideas, then a black person's chances of being lynched would increase, too. Lynching, despite the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, had almost become an obsession in the South at the turn of the century. Wells-Barnett constantly protested the lynchings by writing about them, for example in, Lynch Law in Georgia. She was vigilant about keeping the act of lynching in the public's conscience. She argued that lynching was a form of retaliation, because African Americans were becoming successful businessmen and thus challenging the white business owners. What reasons did Barnett have for writing the book, Lynch Law in Georgia?

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