Post Civil War racial adjustment was a problem Southern whites didn’t want to face and Northern whites refused to share.
When the war started 40% of the Confederacy’s population was black whereas it was only 1% in the free Northern states. Even a century later blacks represented only 2% of the population of Massachusetts, which was the birthplace of abolitionism. Unfortunately, Reconstruction era black voters in the South were manipulated to provide a reliable voting block in order to sustain the Republican Party’s control of the federal government. Once the block was no longer needed, the Party quickly dropped the constituency. Thereafter, Southern blacks were on their own. One of their earliest leaders, Booker T. Washington, rose to prominence about fifteen years later in the early 1890s.
Four years after the collapse of the last Carpetbag regimes, Alabama allocated $2,000 to form the Tuskegee Institute as a college for black teachers in 1881. Twenty-five year old Washington, who was a former slave, became the school’s principal. He had learned his trade at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, which loaned him enough money to buy 100 acres of land for Tuskegee. Seven years later the 540-acre school had over 400 students. In addition to their academics, students were trained in skills such as carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing, and shoemaking. Girls learned how to cook and sew while boys were taught farming and dairying.
Teachers and students provided a large part of the institute’s needs through their own labor. They produced and sold bricks, lumber, furniture, wagons, tools, and clothing. To those who felt that such labor was beneath their dignity Washington answered, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” He also worked in the fields alongside his critics.
A year after the school was formed Washington travelled the North seeking donations. Although initially received coolly, potential benefactors gradually warmed-up, impressed by the school’s work to contribute to its own financial needs. At Madison, Wisconsin he gave an address to the annual convention of the National Education Association in 1884, which was scarcely three year’s after Tuskegee was organized. In 1893 a leading magazine profiled him, along with white teachers at Harvard and Yale, as a top American educator. He quickly became a respected African-American leader who spoke often to Southern blacks and mixed racial groups in the North. Continue reading