The Soul that is within me, no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me – Frederick Douglass
Booker T. Washington spoke that quote by the distinguished Frederick Douglass as a mantra to remember that there is nothing that any man could do outside of him that he would allow him to degrade his Soul. With this in mind, Washington set out to create a society of high minded, caring, loving educated individuals that knew basic hygiene, cleanliness, practical knowledge of some industry, and were able to make a living once they left school.
Even though Washington was encouraging the newly freed Blacks to build their own institution and work for their own communities, he believed in being neighborly. “I have advised our people in the South to make friends in every straightforward, manly way with the next door neighbor whether he be a Black man or a White man.”
He felt very strongly that his success and failure with Tuskegee would be a measuring stick by which his entire race would be measured and he felt compelled to succeed because of this.
“I know that in a large degree, we were trying an experiment that of testing whether or not it was possible for Negroes to build up and control the affairs of a large educational institution. I knew that if we failed, it would injure the whole race.”
The first Tuskegee students built their own buildings. They were building an institution that taught communal economics and marketplace. They built it in slow progression step by step. Washington speaks on his incredible faith through adversity and financial stress. He said that whenever providence was needed, providence was provided.
On hard work, he continued to assert that it would be the tangible that went the furthest in bridging the gap of racial inequality.
“My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long way in softening prejudices. The actual sight of a first class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussions about a house that he ought to build or perhaps can build . . . the individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race.”
He was further determined to keep his moral character of the highest regard and this he felt could be achieved through service, humility and forgiveness. He believed that with God’s help, he would be able to completely rid himself of any ill feeling toward the white southern man.
“Great men cultivate love . . . only little men cherish the spirit of hatred. Assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong: . . . oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak. [I] resolve that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”
Washington strongly believed that slavery and the subsequent oppression would only caused a “permanent injury” to the morals of the white man. “The white man who begins by cheating the Negro usually ends by cheating the white man.”
At Tuskegee, they stressed communal living, hard work, service and this all promoted a sense of ownership amongst the teachers , administration and the students at Tuskegee. The teachers and administrators were happy in the privilege to be able to help others in the race improve their conditions. The students felt a sense of ownership because Washington stressed to them that he trusted them.
Industry was built organically at Tuskegee. All things were built from the ground up. The students not only built the buildings, they made the bricks with which the buildings were built AND build the furnishings that went into these buildings. Many students worked 10 hour days to secure a spot in the night school where they then would take classes and study and additional 2 hours a night.
Washington always believed in racial equality and strongly desired racial harmony. By the end of the 1800’s and the beginning of 1900’s, Washington believed that education and the equal treatment and opportunities for both races would be the answer.
“If Congress wanted to do something which would assist in ridding the South of the race question and making friends between the two races, it should in every proper way encourage the material and intellectual growth of both races.”
It was inevitable, he believed that progress was moving swiftly and that both races needed to feel engaged meaningfully in the advancement of the United States at this point in time. He also had high ideals for the direction that man would take this relentless pace of industrial and intellectual progress.
“One might as well try to stop the progress of a mighty railroad train by throwing his body across the track, as to try to stop the growth of the world in the direction of giving mankind more intelligence, more culture, more skill, more liberty and in the direction of extending more sympathy and more brotherly kindness.”
In his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, his focus was on finding ways to promote racial harmony while asserting that this would be the truest path to success for all people in this country. And at the same time working to up lift his people and teaching them to how to build and strengthen their community.
“There is no defense of security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all . . . There is no escape through the law of man or God from the inevitable: The laws of changeless justice bind Oppressor to oppressed; And close as sin and suffering joined, we march to fate abreast (Whittier) . . .Nearly sixteen millions of hands [of the Negro] will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one -third its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic. . . it is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours.”
Washington’s desire to teach about the organic nature of life and living was most probably a manifestation of his love for nature. He believed in oneness with nature and the world around him. He loved his gardens and being where ” no one can vex us, surrounded by pure air, the trees, the shubbery, the flowers and the sweet fragrance that springs from a hundred plants, enjoying the chirp of the crickets and the song of birds. This is solid rest. . . I pity the man or woman who has never learned to enjoy nature and to get strength and inspiration out of it.”
The last important point of Up From Slavery that deserves emphasis is Washington’s continual assertions of forgiveness, service and empathy as being the highest of human ideals,
“No man whose vision is bounded by colour can come into contact with what is highest and best in the world . . . the one thing that is most worth living for – and dying for, if need be – is the opportunity of making some one else more happy and more useful.”
In the end, it all boiled down to a man and a dream of bettering his people. His formula was that his students would be so educated that they would be able to meet the conditions of that time and to be able to do that which that world wants done. He wanted every student to have enough skill coupled with intelligence and moral character to enable him to make a living for himself and others. Finally he wanted to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labour is dignified and beautiful and not something to escape.
His dream was a great one:
Soon after I began work at Tuskegee, I formed a resolution in the secret of my heart, that I would try to build up a school that would be of so much service to the country that the President of the United States would one day come see it.
Theodore Roosevelt visiting Tuskegee Institute
This was his vision for his people:
My race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skills, in our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance of the substance, to be great and yet small, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all.
We’ve come a long, long way from the days that Booker T. Washington built Tuskegee, and his words inspire me and show me that we still have a long way to go. But like his prophecy of building Tuskegee to an institute that a president would visit, I believe that his vision for Our People – strong independent people who spread compassionate love to all -will also come to fruition.
A People with a Soul that no man can degrade.