The Booker T. Washington Era
From the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the U.S. government took a hands-off approach to the Southern states and the issues faced by African Americans. With no federal oversight, as white Southerners regained control of state legislatures, they passed discriminatory laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which took away many of the rights gained after the Civil War. Racial violence and lynchings surged.
All was not negative, however, as the introduction to the Special Presentation section on The Booker T. Washington Era makes clear. African Americans continued to serve in the military and to seek out educational opportunities, they produced stellar work in the arts, and civil rights organizations were founded to continue the struggle for full citizenship.
One of the best-known African Americans of the post-Reconstruction era was Booker T. Washington. Washington was the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, an institution of higher learning based on Washington’s philosophy of patience, industry, and thrift; his school emphasized vocational training—preparation for jobs, including jobs as teachers—rather than a strictly academic experience. Washington believed African Americans needed to master the skills that would help them be successful in farming and other trades. He stressed the “useful” over the “geegaws of life.”
Washington became famous nationally after giving a speech at the opening of the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. In that speech, he urged both races to learn to work together to the benefit of both; yet he offered a famously phrased compromise regarding the social sphere:
As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, by nursing your children, watching by the sick bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear dimmed eyes to their graves, as in the future in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. 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.
Read the remainder of Washington’s speech and answer these questions:
- Why do you think Washington made the case for African American loyalty to white Southerners? How do you think white Southerners responded to this appeal?
- Do you find the fingers/hand metaphor an effective way to offer the compromise Washington was presenting? Why or why not?
- What did Washington say about “the agitation of questions of social equality”? Who might have disagreed with his position? What arguments could opponents have made in response to Washington’s speech?
Another prominent African American, W.E.B. DuBois, congratulated Washington on the success of his speech but was among those who agitated on “questions of social equality.” Find out more about W.E.B. DuBois and how his philosophy differed from that of Booker T. Washington.
African American women were also at the forefront of debates about the best approach to help black Americans attain full citizenship. While Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Church Terrell, like DuBois and Washington, had different philosophies, both advocated for education and employment for African American women.
The post-Reconstruction period saw an increase in violence against African Americans. Lynching was a particularly appalling problem. One of the leaders of the anti-lynching movement was an African American journalist, Ida B.Wells-Barnett. Read the “Report of Anti-lynching Committee, January 21, 1921,” which provides data on lynchings:
- Map the states in which lynchings were most common. What do you notice about the locations of the states where lynchings occurred?
- What kinds of offenses were lynching victims accused of?
- What could you infer from the number of lynching victims who were taken from police custody?
- What strategies for combating lynching are mentioned in the report? What barriers prevented these efforts from being successful quickly?
The Anti-Lynching Committee was a committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the civil rights organizations founded during the post-Reconstruction period. Another was the National Urban League. What were the goals of these two organizations? Why might conditions at the time have necessitated collective (rather than individual) action? Can you think of other historical examples when oppressed people have created organizations to work for change? How effective has organizing been?