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Collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

Solving the Race Problem

Friday, December 30, 1898
Morning Session, 11 o'clock

The Church as a Factor in Solving the Race Problem in America

American Sketches: A Negro Congregation in Washington. Artist unknown. Wood Engraving, Illustrated London News, November 18, 1876. LC-USZ62-50584.

The black church has always been a dominant force in African-American life. Before Emancipation, blacks often worshipped in secret at "hush harbors" deep in the woods, far from the ears of the masters. After the Civil War, in many black communities the church was the only institution in existence. Many of the remarkable leaders of the postwar era sprang from the church.

The church served as a unifying force, provided a haven from the domination of white society, nurtured leaders, preserved black culture, and encouraged education and thrift. The church provided strong moral leadership in the drive for social justice.

The Champions of Human Liberty -- How shall we Honor them?

John Brown (1800-1859). Black and Batchelder. Photograph, 1859. LC-USZ62-2472.

John Brown was a white radical abolitionist whose very name came to symbolize the passion and fury of the nation's struggle over slavery. Born in 1800 of New England Puritan stock, Brown moved from one trade to another, never proving very successful. Married twice, he had twenty children. An intensely religious man, Brown believed that he had a mandate from God to destroy slavery at any cost.

In the 1850s Brown joined five of his sons in Kansas, where he took a leading role in the deadly fight to keep the state free of slavery. He planned to help escaping fugitive slaves by building a series of natural and defensible forts in the mountains of Virginia. As a first step, on the night of October 16, 1859, Brown joined two of his sons, five black men, and fifteen other supporters and raided Harper's Ferry (now in West Virginia). He captured a federal arsenal and held sixty of the town's residents hostage.

Two days later, after a pitched battle with a small body of Marines led by Robert E. Lee, Brown surrendered. He was wounded, two of his sons and six more of his men were killed, five escaped, and seven were captured. John Brown was tried for treason and murder, convicted, and hanged December 2, 1859. A monster in the eyes of slaveholders, Brown became an instant martyr to abolitionists.

Industrial Education

Men working in a corner in the electrical division, Tuskegee Inst., Ala. Photographer unknown. Photograph, ca. 1913. LC-USZ62-25655.

The Civil War emancipated the slaves, but it did not prepare them to live as free men. Most were poor, illiterate, and skilled only in agriculture. To meet the immediate needs of these rural African-Americans, training schools were established across the South. One of the most important was Tuskegee Institute, headed by Booker T. Washington, who was appointed principal in 1881.

Students at Tuskegee Institute learned, in Booker T. Washington's words, "to do a common thing in an uncommon manner." The institute taught basic farming, carpentry, brickmaking and bricklaying, print shop, home economics, and other practical subjects, as well as basic secondary school courses. Manual training courses developed at Tuskegee served as models, not just in the United States, but in nations all over the developing world.

Presidents and dignitaries visited Tuskegee. The major philanthropic figures of the day -- such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie -- contributed heavily to its operation, confirming, in the words of a 1916 report of the U.S. Bureau of Education, "the partiality of donors in the North for schools of this order."

African-American critics charged that Tuskegee did little more than train its students to comply with the white social order of the South and that Tuskegee graduates, denied access to industrial positions, became domestic workers and manual laborers. However, Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington insisted that progress was being made.

Higher Education

Students seated at desks in class room, Tuskegee, Ala. Underwood & Underwood. Photograph, 1906. LC-USZ62-26266.

After the Civil War, there was a great and immediate need for teachers to educate emancipated slaves. To meet this need, the Freedmen's Bureau -- an agency of the federal government -- the American Missionary Society, and various churches established normal schools and colleges throughout the South.

In 1868, the Hampton Institute was established by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. In 1881, Tuskegee Institute began operation, with Booker T. Washington, -- an alumnus of Hampton -- serving as principal. These two schools provided what was called "practical education" -- training in agriculture, domestic science, and manual and industrial arts. Heavily endowed by industrial philanthropists, Tuskegee and its principal soon achieved worldwide importance and influence.

The question of whether the education of African-Americans should focus upon practical training or the liberal arts was to dominate discussions among black intellectual leaders for a generation. To many white leaders of the day, practical education meant a continuation of the black's status as domestic servant and manual worker. To the black leaders of the Niagara Movement, liberal education offered hope of true advancement.