Issues & Insights

Was Booker T. Washington Too White?

According to the Washington Post, on May 31, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Talking about Race” portal published a graphic of “Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” As reported by Thomas DiLorenzo, it characterized “most U.S. white people most of the time” as including “self-reliance, independence, merit, competitiveness, belief in equality under the law, protection of property rights, ability to speak and write plain English, avoidance of conflict, politeness, Christianity, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the work ethic, associating ‘pay’ with work, the scientific method, respect for authority, planning for the future (i.e., savings, delayed gratification), and belief in the traditional nuclear family.”

As people started noticing the claims that such characteristics represented whiteness, rather than what Frederic Hess and R.J. Martin termed “intellectual and personal traits that promote personal and civic success – in the U.S. or anywhere else,” it created enough controversy that the graphic was taken down last month, leaving many unanswered questions in its wake.

However, that graphic helped me understand something that has puzzled me for a long time. That something is that every Black History Month, which annually promotes many role models for imitation, gives such short shrift to Booker T. Washington. While my research has led me to conclude that he was an exemplar of the moral means to success – self-improvement that benefits others as well through voluntary arrangements – apparently that makes him “too white” to emulate today. But that is a hard conclusion to defend.  

Washington was born a slave, and was seven when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. At 11, he got his first book and taught himself to read. He thought to “get into a schoolhouse and study … would be about the same as getting into paradise.” At 16, he went 500 miles to Hampton Institute in Virginia with only $1.50 in his pocket. He attended classes by day and worked nights for room and board. After graduation, Hampton made him an instructor. In 1881, he founded and then led what is now the Tuskegee Institute for years as principal, emphasizing education and an unwavering work ethic.

Washington was a tireless educator and advocate of black self-improvement. At Tuskegee, he taught technical skills needed to provide the ability to earn a good living. He pushed the values of individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for enduring moral character as the best means for former slaves, who started with little but the shirts on their backs, to succeed. He encouraged business, industry and entrepreneurship, rather than political agitation, as the most effective foundation for success. He formed the National Negro Business League. He understood and modeled the spirit of capitalism, recognizing that those who serve others best will benefit themselves by doing so.

So what did this ex-slave believe and say that made him “too white” for modern wokeness to notice, much less endorse? Consider the following selection from his extensive writing.

We shall make a fatal error if we yield to the temptation of believing that mere opposition to our wrongs, and the simple utterance of complaint, will take the place of progressive, constructive action, which must constitute the bedrock of all true civilization.

I [am] assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart.

I have never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed. I have always had high regard for the man who could tell me how to succeed.

Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.

Nor shall we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

Character, not circumstances, make the man.

I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant and unexpected encouragement, if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day.

One constructive effort in the way of progress does more to blot out discrimination than all the whinings in the world.

The most complete development of each human being can come only through his being permitted to exercise the most complete freedom compatible with the freedom of others.

Our republic is the outgrowth of the desire for liberty that is natural in every human breast … freedom of body, mind, and soul, and the most complete guarantee of the safety of life and property.

At bottom, the interests of humanity and of the individual are one.

In a state of freedom and enlightenment, [man] renders the highest and most helpful form of service [to others].

It is what a man or woman is able to do that counts.

No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is left long without proper reward.

The individual who can do something that the world wants will, in the end, make his way regardless of race.

Booker T. Washington’s words and actions inspire me. Relying on self-improvement and voluntary arrangements, rather than trying to coerce others, is key to what parents, regardless of race, wish to pass on so that their children can make the most of their lives. And despite the fact that it involves hard work and sacrifice (as does every real success), which makes it a message many do not want to hear, it is as true, and important today as it was during his life.

Harold F. Callahan is the pen name for an economist and public policy writer who wishes to maintain privacy due to threats and risks involved with the subject.

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  • This is an inspiring article. I remember reading Washington’s book “Up from Slavery”, a must read for every American. He was truly a role model not only for his race but every human.

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