Anyone who knows me more than a little bit will tell you that W. E. B. Du Bois is my intellectual hero. Father of American sociology, founder of the NAACP and The Crisis magazine, prolific intellectual who has influenced fields ranging from Reconstruction history to African American art criticism—he was and is a beacon.

Perhaps it will be surprising, then, that I regard his nemesis, Booker T. Washington, with great admiration as well. The animus between the two men is often reduced to simple shorthand: During Jim Crow, Du Bois advocated for full political and civic rights for African Americans, including access to classical (elite) education. Washington, in contrast, encouraged a focus on industrial education, and used the institution he founded and helmed, Tuskegee Institute (now University), as a model. Washington believed that in time, upon becoming part of the fabric of the U.S. economy, African Americans would achieve political access.

Du Bois was an advocate. Washington was an accommodationist. Even worse, as the most powerful Black man in the United States, with deep political connections, Washington was known to wield his power unethically at times. He was a kingmaker who could also alienate rivals with ease.

Both men wrote for The Atlantic. One of the joys of this new job is that I have an opportunity to delve into the magazine’s archive, which are, in a word, amazing. So I looked for Washington’s words in the magazine, hoping they would help me explain my conflicted but consistent appreciation of Booker T. They did.  (I’ll discuss some of Du Bois’s and others’ in later newsletters.)

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. By the time he died in 1915, he was the most powerful Black man in the United States, in part due to the establishment of Tuskegee. In the September 1896 issue of The Atlantic, he wrote:

My work began at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, in a small shanty and church, with one teacher and thirty students, without a dollar’s worth of property. The spirit of work and of industrial thrift, with aid from the State and generosity from the North, has enabled us to develop an institution of eight hundred students gathered from nineteen States, with seventy-nine instructors, fourteen hundred acres of land, and thirty buildings, including large and small.

Washington believed that economic development was essential to African Americans claiming a stake in the nation. This article was published a mere four months after the Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared state segregation statutes constitutional and precipitated the spread of Jim Crow across the South and in parts of other regions. Focusing on economics was a way to turn the focus of Black aspirations inward, as society closed its doors to African Americans. The economic gain that Washington believed could come was predicated on skilled labor and land ownership. But he did not, despite the perception otherwise, believe that manual labor should be the sole lot of Black people. He advocated for practical skills rooted in academic training, saying:

One of the objections sometimes urged against industrial education for the negro is that it aims merely to teach him to work on the same plan that he was made to follow when in slavery. This is far from being the object at Tuskegee. At the head of each of the twenty-five industrial departments we have an intelligent and competent instructor, just as we have in our history classes, so that the student is taught not only practical brick-masonry, for example, but also the underlying principles of that industry, the mathematics and the mechanical and architectural drawing. Or he is taught how to become master of the forces of nature so that, instead of cultivating corn in the old way, he can use a corn cultivator, that lays off the furrows, drops the corn into them, and covers it, and in this way he can do more work than three men by the old process of corn-planting; at the same time much of the toil is eliminated and labor is dignified. In a word, the constant aim is to show the student how to put brains into every process of labor; how to bring his knowledge of mathematics and the sciences into farming, carpentry, forging, foundry work; how to dispense as soon as possible with the old form of ante-bellum labor.
Tuskegee math class. (Getty)

By detailing how Tuskegee was a self-sustaining institution, built on both labor and knowledge, he provided context for what might have been seen as an incendiary critique of the economic domination experienced by Black southerners. An example he gives, of a Tuskegee graduate going to a rural Black community to teach in ways that allow for locals to negotiate labor contracts, build homes, and pursue formal education, is peppered with off-putting stereotypes of Black people copying the decadence of their former masters, who were often described in the Northeast as not only exploitative but lazy, excessive, and indulgent. But the larger point is no less than an argument for a radical transformation of racialized labor relations. It isn’t accommodationist in anything but style.

This very sensibility is part of why Tuskegee became essential to the networked Black institution-building throughout the South in the Jim Crow era. For example, it was through a model created at the Extension School of Tuskegee that a school-building program was established. Extension School students used sweat equity to develop a plan for schoolhouses for Black children. Tuskegee faculty, along with Booker T., approached philanthropists such as Anna Jeanes and Julius Rosenwald to support Black communities’ efforts to provide education for their children. It is worth noting, too, that these were communities that were providing public schools for white children, but no facilities, or substandard ones, for Black children.

What makes this even more egregious is that it was Black people in Reconstruction legislatures who insisted that the South should have public school systems. And then, once the systems were built and Reconstruction ended, Black children were excluded from them. But to return to the point, Tuskegee set forward a model of institution-building and land development in spite of the widespread violence and exclusion experienced by African Americans. They trained farmers, but they also trained teachers. They collected national data on lynching, and they trained musicians, scholars, and intellectuals—Ralph Ellison, Jack Whitten, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, Claude McKay, Betty Shabazz, and Albert Murray are several distinguished examples. Tuskegee also provided the long-term professional home of the most distinguished African American agricultural scientist of the 20th century, George Washington Carver.

My personal and admittedly somewhat sentimental connection to Tuskegee is that it is perhaps the most important institution in bringing my extended family into the middle class (though the Catholic Church was similarly impactful.) The “building” sensibility of Tuskegee was the mechanism through which my aunts and uncles became electrical and materials engineers, as well as prepared for law school and medical school.

I’ve long known that Washington’s institution-building was profound. However, I am clear that Washington was wrong on this count: He put the cart of economic progress before the proverbial horse: rights. There could be no widespread economic development for Black southerners without political and civic access. The fact that Tuskegee changed the fortunes in my family had everything to do with doors that opened in the civil-rights movement. It was both institution-building and the resistance that mattered.  

In that first piece for The Atlantic, Washington refers to the South as “unsettled country.” This idea resonates deeply with me. I’ve brought it here, of course, to Unsettled Territory, but also it shaped my forthcoming book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon Line to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Ecco, January 2022). I’m not comfortable with the simple boxes we use to describe people and places. Moreover, there is a cost to two-dimensional accounts, binaries of right and wrong, in history. Nuance is essential, especially when considering the condition of people who were resigned to the status of chattel, and who, after valiantly supporting the Union in the Civil War, were granted citizenship by the Constitution only to be consigned to second-class citizenship (at best) through both state and federal legal mechanisms just a decade later. Shifting strategies were necessary for Black freedom dreams. After all, the door was slammed at every turn. Therefore, it is useful to cover the breadth of the political imagination under Jim Crow with care, including what has been so easy to criticize. Some things to consider: Perhaps if Washington’s strategy had been successful, the wealth gap wouldn’t be so pronounced. And if Tuskegee hadn’t existed, the educational-opportunity gap would certainly have been worse. Maybe knowing that gives us ways of thinking about where we go from here, in this moment of backlash to both Black history and Black protest.

As we continue to live with the legacies of a Jim Crow past, reexamination always illuminates.