“Teaching School in a Stable and a Hen-House”

In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 8, “Teaching School in a Stable and a Hen-House.” In this chapter, Booker T. Washington talks about the contributions that he received for the struggling Tuskegee Institute—from both African-Americans and whites.  At first, Washington narrates, many white people in Tuskegee, Alabama were skeptical about educating African-Americans.  They feared that education would encourage African-Americans to leave the farms, and thus decline in terms of their economic value to the state.  Moreover, when whites thought about an educated African-American, all they could really envision was someone “with a high hat, imitation gold eye-glasses, a showy walking-stick, kid gloves, fancy boots, and what not—in a word, a man who was determined to live by his wits.”

But Booker’s goals were the opposite of this, for he states:

“We found that the most of our students came from the country districts, where agriculture in some form or other was the main dependence of the people. We learned that about eighty-five per cent of the coloured people in the Gulf states depended upon agriculture for their living. Since this was true, we wanted to be careful not to educate our students out of sympathy with agricultural life, so that they would be attracted from the country to the cities, and yield to the temptation of trying to live by their wits. We wanted to give them such an education as would fit a large proportion of them to be teachers, and at the same time cause them to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming, as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people.”

My impression from this chapter was that Booker T. Washington wanted African-Americans to learn the liberal arts, for he mentions the teaching of French at the Tuskegee Institute.  But he also desired that they learn practical skills—good manners, how to apply mathematics to a concrete bank account, etc.  Moreover, he seems to be trying to communicate to white society that the Tuskegee Institute would equip African-Americans to be useful for the plantation districts—as they would contribute ideas about agriculture, as well as display the knowledge and good character that they would have received from their education.

I wonder if W.E.B. Du Bois had problems with this.  Some of what Du Bois says in The Souls of Black Folk overlaps with Booker T. Washington’s goals in this chapter: educated African-Americans returning to their communities to help them to succeed, having higher values than material success, contributing what one has learned.  Didn’t Du Bois want the talented tenth to do these sorts of things, as they inspired the broader African-American community?

But Du Bois’ problem was that Washington came to prioritize African-Americans learning manual skills and achieving economic success, over receiving a liberal arts education and engaging in political activity.  Technically-speaking, in Washington’s work, I don’t see that—for he supports the liberal arts in addition to education in practical skills, and he promotes African-American suffrage.  At the same time, his tone appears to be that practical skills are superior to the liberal arts, and he tells a couple of bad stories about the political process.  With that sort of mindset, I can understand how he got to the point where he prioritized industrial education and economic success over the liberal arts and political activity—even though we should also remember that he promoted African-American suffrage in a clandestine manner.  Some of his approach may have been rooted in his own beliefs, whereas other aspects were perhaps based on what he thought African-Americans could realistically achieve in a white society.

Another note: In this chapter, Booker T. Washington meets the lady who became his wife, Olive Davidson.  Booker expresses his admiration for her compassion (especially for the sick) and her hard-work on behalf of the Tuskegee Institute.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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