The first black person in America to be considered the “leader” of the black race was Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was born April 5, 1856 in Hale’s Ford, Virginia as a slave. His mother was a slave & his father was a white man that he had never met. Despite his very humble beginnings, Booker T. Washington went on to become one of the most famous Americans of his time to where he earned the respect of prominent business men in America by the likes of Andrew Carnegie, to sitting US Presidents, all the way to Queen Victoria of England. But Booker T. Washington’s most celebrated accomplishment was the creation of Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in a small town named Tuskegee, AL. Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute’s creation was spearheaded by Booker T. Washington for the sole purpose of setting a standard of educational quality that would prove to be a template for the nation during the Reconstruction era of American history that the Africans were far more beneficial for the progression of America if Africans were properly educated & trained to work in the industries versus remaining in desperate extreme poverty after the eradication of slavery.
I have a personal connection to Tuskegee University. I actually went to college there starting back in 1998. So I’ve been extremely familiar with Booker T. Washington & his legacy going on almost 20 years now. One of the things that I never gave much thought to back in my days of attending Tuskegee University was exactly how in the world did this former slave manage to get this school off the ground in the heart of the deep South as to where just literally a few years prior, the people attending this school were either former slaves or the children of former slaves. Another aspect was that a very significant portion of the money to keep the school running, especially in its early years, were funds that came from people who were former slave owners. One of the reasons I believe that Booker T. Washington was so well respected across the country by black & white Americans was simply because he was mulatto (half white/half black). Whether white or black people like to admit to it or not, white America has always viewed mulatto people in a more favorable way than non-mixed blacks. This is not something I’m just saying simply because I too am a mulatto, these are just pure facts that we’ve witnessed since the days on the plantation all the way to the present in how biracial people have somewhat become the “standard” in how many white Americans choose to portray “blackness” in the media all the way to the first “black” (mulatto) President by the name of Barack Obama. Hate it or love it, this is just another reality of America. The reason I’m bringing this up is because had Booker T. Washington not been biracial, would he have honestly accomplished as much as he was able to accomplish in his lifetime during that era of American history where racism was far more extreme, blunt & deadlier than it is today? Seriously. Think about it. This man went from being a slave to white people of all socio economic backgrounds damn near worshipping the ground he walked upon.
To some, like W.E.B. DuBois (another highly educated & respected mulatto who just happened to be Booker T. Washington’s arch nemesis), Booker T. Washington amounted to what black people in modern times might refer to as a coon. The reason why W.E.B. DuBoise possibly viewed Booker T. Washington as a coon is because Booker T. Washington essentially believed that the best way for black people to progress in the world was to basically assimilate into white culture. Booker T. Washington believed that for a former slave & their children to have somewhat of a remote chance in succeeding in life was to embrace American culture AND basically forgive white America of its sins committed during slavery. W.E.B. DuBois on the other hand was one of the first to embrace the idea of black nationalism to where black people did for themselves as much as possible without much help from white influence. But during this time in American history, is it really fair to label Booker T. Washington a coon for simply trying to do what he felt best for black society at the point in time?
You have to take into consideration the challenges Booker T. Washington was facing during the Reconstruction era. He was in the deep South charged with setting up an educational facility that was geared towards educating thousands of poverty stricken illiterate former slaves & their children. The possible failure of Tuskegee Normal & Industrial Institute would literally forever etch itself into the minds of white America that black people were a helpless race who were probably better off as slaves than freed. During the construction & maintenance of the school, most of the money to fund this operation did come from white people ranging from high class businessmen up North to former slave owners in the South, but when you think about it…where else was he supposed to get the necessary funding to maintain & grow this school? The majority of black people during that time had damn near nothing. So due to these unique circumstances of trying to appease white people for financial support and trying to convince black society that your only true avenue to rise from the atrocities of slavery was to embrace being an “American” for pure survival, I wouldn’t call Booker T. Washington a coon. I would simply say he recognized the lay of the land and the dire conditions of black society during those times & felt he had to do his best to convince white America that educated black people were more beneficial than poverty stricken or enslaved black people…to which he succeeded as far as the creation of Tuskegee University is concerned. Did he change the overall mentality of white America towards black society? Absolutely not as evidenced by the conditions of this country to this very day, but for the hand he was dealt during that time period, he made strides beyond his wildest imagination for the progression of black society.
So if you’ve yet to read Up From Slavery, go read the book. It is very inspiring.