It sounds so funny but the most relevant leader of Black America was born in the 19th Century; wrote his teachings in the 20th Century and those words are most applicable now in the 21st Century. Yes, there are others such as Frederick Douglas and our undeniable Liberator, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but the teachings and philosophy of Booker T. Washington are timeless and apply today as they did decades ago. There have been great efforts to erase his teachings and divert his mission but still the lessons rise and still they apply today as much as ever.
Booker T. Washington was born in West Virginia and recognized at an early age the importance of education. So much that he literally walked to Hampton University in Virginia, hundreds of miles away so that he could begin his formal education. While there he learned ways to construct the model university for Blacks and decided that, somehow, he would develop it. Not many years later he started the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with some seed money from a religious order. From the ground up he built one of the finest institutions in the world that still exists today and cranks out thousands of Black graduates to lead our communities. His whole point was that Blacks can do this on our own. We just have to get ourselves together, form the plans and implement them. From education we go to capitalism and commerce. Not only can African Americans survive, we can thrive. Self sufficiency is the key and that lesson still applies today.
Mr. Washington’s plan was to spread the success of Tuskegee to the rest of the nation. He formed the National Negro Business League (a network of chambers of commerce) and began putting offices in cities throughout the nation. He was going to empower Black America through education and commerce and build strong viable Black neighborhoods. White industrialists saw his plans as music to their ears. Finally, the solution of the Negro was formed and there was a happy ending coming. Magnates such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, etc. started funding these business leagues. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner and to acknowledge his program as a national solution. Mr. Washington’s effort was accomplished a few years before the establishment of the US Chamber of Commerce – we had it first!
While capitalists and Republicans applauded the merits of Booker T. Washington’s Negro initiative, white liberals up north were threatened and enraged. They plotted against this positive initiative. They formed two different groups within a few years: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Both of these organizations were designed to thwart the efforts of Booker T. Washington and distract the efforts of Blacks to embrace capitalism and economic empowerment. The NAACP hired W.E.B. DuBois to debate and to go face to face against Mr. Washington wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. Many of the local Negro Business Leagues were destroyed and their business enclaves were burned down such as Greenwood, OK and Durham, NC. Funny, the Ku Klux Klan and the nouveau colored groups were working hand in hand.
Booker T. Washington died mysteriously in 1915 and the push for Black economic empowerment sputtered for the following decades. It wasn’t until the end of the successful Civil Rights Struggle, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, in the 1960’s that economic empowerment came back to the forefront of Black issues. Still, things like school busing and forced integration by the NAACP and others led to a further deterioration of our Black communities. Our strong enclaves turned to ghettos and hopelessness was preached in the white press and media daily. We were going in reverse as schools such as Central High in Mobile, AL; Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis and other cities were closed because Blacks could no longer control their own educational and economic destinies. We had to be placed in trusts by white strangers.
It wasn’t until the approaching of the 21st Century that we started relying on ourselves once again. Black Chambers of Commerce are sprouting up everywhere and we once again believe in the strength and value of our own Black colleges and universities. There is nothing wrong with a Black community and it is up to us to make sure it is viable and a place of positive incubation for our children and an assurance of a great future. Every Black child in America must be taught the teachings of Booker T. Washington and espouse a commitment to what he stood for. A strong Black America makes a stronger America. We owe this to ourselves and must ensure the future of this great country.