In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 5, “The Reconstruction Period.” In this chapter, Washington presents his views on suffrage and education.
On suffrage during Reconstruction, Washington states the following:
“Still, as I look back now over the entire period of our freedom, I cannot help feeling that it would have been wiser if some plan could have been put in operation which would have made the possession of a certain amount of education or property, or both, a test for the exercise of the franchise, and a way provided by which this test should be made to apply honestly and squarely to both the white and black races.”
Washington is not the only person to feel this way, for W.E.B. Du Bois also said that he can understand African-Americans being refused the right to vote if they are ignorant, but that’s why he believes in education. (This is in The Souls of Black Folk, in the essay “Of Booker T. Washington and Others.”) Both Washington and Du Bois are not so much against literacy tests, but they are critical of how white society applied them in an unfair manner.
Both Washington and Du Bois discuss the ill effects of Reconstruction. Washington says that African-American voters under Reconstruction were manipulated to put corrupt whites into office, and that there were African-Americans who were elected who were far from qualified. Du Bois states that several African-Americans in his day were apathetic towards voting, on account of the political corruption that existed in the time of Reconstruction.
But both Washington and Du Bois also believe in the importance of suffrage. Washington affirms that African-Americans of his day are stronger and wiser than during the time of Reconstruction, and so they will not attempt to alienate white Southerners, who should trust African-Americans with a political voice, without fearing a repeat of the Reconstruction days. The seriousness with which Washington takes this issue is evident in the following quote:
“More and more I am convinced that the final solution of the political end of our race problem will be for each state that finds it necessary to change the law bearing upon the franchise to make the law apply with absolute honesty, and without opportunity for double dealing or evasion, to both races alike. Any other course my daily observation in the South convinces me, will be unjust to the Negro, unjust to the white man, and unfair to the rest of the states in the Union, and will be, like slavery, a sin that at some time we shall have to pay for.”
Du Bois encourages African-Americans to value the right to vote, notwithstanding its misuse in the past, for they have to live under the laws and policies of elected officials, and so it is only proper that they have a say in who those officials are.
But part of the division between Washington and Du Bois was that Du Bois felt that Washington abandoned the fight for suffrage, focusing instead on the industrial advancement of African-Americans. Washington may have openly supported African-American suffrage in Up from Slavery before he made that sort of move. Perhaps at some point, he preferred to focus on battles that he thought he could win, or he felt that alienating white society would be counter-productive. And yet, Washington secretly promoted African-American suffrage.
On the issue of education, Du Bois accused Washington of not supporting higher education, and of focusing instead on training African-Americans for industry. In the chapter of Washington’s book that I read today, however, Washington expressed support for the liberal arts, but he also voiced his disappointment that African-Americans weren’t learning skills for manual labor. As he noted, a person can learn Greek and Latin, but that’s not all he should know! Did this sort of attitude eventually lead Washington to favor African-Americans learning industrial skills instead of the liberal arts, since industrial skills put food on the table? Or did he think that the skills to put food on the table were the priority, whereas liberal arts could come later?
Another thing to note: Washington does not appear to be against the government helping people, but he does express some disappointment that African-Americans under Reconstruction depended on the federal government, and that they looked for the government to create positions for them rather than creating those positions themselves. I think this sort of view explains why many African-American conservatives admire and draw from the ideas of Booker T. Washington.