Booker T. Washington and Racial Equality

In the late 1800s, Booker T. Washington was the President of the Tuskegee Institute, a school in Alabama that taught African Americans practical skills like farming. He spoke to whites about African Americans at the Atlanta Exposition. The speech, which emphasized that good relations with whites would help blacks more than starting arguments, made Washington a recognized leader of African Americans.

Washington believed that in the late nineteenth century African Americans needed good relations with whites so they could make a living and get educated. In his opinion, African Americans could achieve good relationships with whites much easier by seeking jobs in factories or as maids than if they demanded a seat in Congress. He stated, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we [African Americans] must begin, and not at the top.” By filling jobs that were useful to whites, African Americans had a better chance of earning a living. According to Washington, if African Americans had nothing to live on they would not be able to enjoy equal rights even if they had those rights were offered to them.

Although he believed in African Americans working simpler jobs at first, Washington wanted them to be accepted into white society eventually. He pointed out the benefits that whites would gain from helping blacks get education and jobs, “we [African Americans] shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress.” Washington believed that if whites saw how useful blacks were to the economy of the South, they would be more accepting of equal rights for blacks. He stated, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” Despite the fact that he encouraged blacks to work jobs that might seem demeaning, he hoped they would gradually gain the right to do whatever they wanted, including serving in Congress.

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