Washington opens his final chapter by reflecting upon the unique and unexpected accomplishments of his life. He claims that his greatest joys and his most notable accomplishments have come when he was trying to make someone else’s life better. To Washington, laboring for someone else’s well being is the most satisfying activity in life.
Six months before he died, General Armstrong wished to return to Tuskegee to visit. Armstrong had lost most functions in his limbs and was no longer able to speak or get around on his own, so the white men who owned the railroad agreed to have a special train take him down to Tuskegee. He was received in a spectacular fashion by thousands of students holding torches in his honor. Armstrong was overcome with happiness and gratitude.
Washington continues his tendency to romanticize Armstrong by highlighting his virtue and fidelity to Tuskegee and the South in general.
Armstrong stayed at Washington’s house in Tuskegee, and despite his debilitating disabilities, Armstrong spent most of his time devising ways to help the South find more social and economic progress. Armstrong felt strongly about uplifting both black Americans and poor Southern white Americans. This last visit by Armstrong provided Washington with inspiration and a renewed devotion to the importance of his work.
Once again Washington idealizes Armstrong and his contributions to both black and white Americans in the South.
Washington claims that his biggest surprise in life came when he received a letter from Harvard University requesting his presence at the commencement ceremonies, in order to confer upon him an honorary degree. Washington was overwhelmed, since Harvard was America’s most prestigious university. Washington reflected on his rise, and how he never could have considered that universities like Harvard would even know his name. He says that he was both grateful and humbled.
Washington spends a significant amount of time in this last chapter reflecting upon his rise in social status from the squalor of slavery. His honorary degree from Harvard is quantitative evidence of such a rise, and many passages in this last chapter will be similar to this one.
Despite his great success and recognition for his life work, Washington claims to never have pursued fame in his career. If others use his name to accomplish a greater good, he is satisfied, but his work is never done for vain purposes. Washington believes that most wealthy people also have a similar worldview to him, and they only use their money or recognition to achieve the greater good.
Washington repeats his claim that success and wealth is evidence of moral strength, and that whatever success he has found is entirely the result of his selfless dedication to his work. Of course, not all or even most wealthy people use their wealth to benefit the greater good. Many people pursue wealth and fame for their personal benefits, not so that they can better serve their communities. The problematic nature of this claim is not that some wealthy people work for the good of their community, as many certainly do, but rather the generalization of all wealthy people as belonging to a class of superior personal merit.
Washington attended the Harvard ceremony on June 24, 1896, and he was awed by the enthusiasm of the students for those receiving the honorary degrees. Washington was conferred an honorary degree of Master of the Arts, and after the ceremony the honorees were marched across campus, received the “Harvard yell,” and attended the alumni dinner at Memorial Hall.
This is the first honorary degree conferred upon an African American by a prestigious university, and Washington spends a significant amount of time in his last chapter describing the event as a testament to his personal progress and success.
Washington was asked to speak at the dinner, and his remarks explained that true societal uplift comes about when the upper classes come in regular contact with the lower classes and “bring the masses up.” Washington claimed that Harvard was engaging in such uplift regularly, and he lauded the school for its efforts. Washington continued, saying that each race in America is required to live up to the American standard, which is merit, and that black Americans must continue to try to better themselves and their race by passing through “the American crucible.” He proposed that black Americans will be measured by their thrift, patience, moral fortitude, and industriousness, and that they should be both “great and small” and work as the “servant of all.”
Washington’s problematic class ideology is again apparent in his idea that the upper class will bring the lower classes to a higher level of society if they are in constant contact. He also places the burden of uplift on black Americans, claiming that it is their responsibility to demonstrate their worth to society—not society’s responsibility to recognize their worth. However, with a group of people that had been socially subjugated for hundreds of years, uplift is not so simple as Washington makes it out to be.
Since the Harvard commencement was the first time that the university had conferred an honorary degree to a black American, the event received relatively widespread news coverage. Washington cites newspapers that suggested Washington’s degree was notable because of its racial implications, but its true notability was in the merit of Washington’s work and service to the country.
Washington notably downplays the racial coverage of his degree, and in doing so he tries to claim that merit and nothing else earned him the degree.
Such national attention to his work inspired Washington to set the goal raising the reputation of his Institute to such greatness that the President of the United States would visit Tuskegee. This goal was so ambitious in Washington’s eyes that he largely kept it a secret. In 1897, Washington made his first stride toward this goal, and he had the Secretary of Agriculture visit and deliver the remarks for the opening of the Institute’s new agriculture building.
To Washington, the President represented the highest level of society. A visit from the President would be an honor because it would show that Tuskegee is worth the attention of the most elite members of white society.
To further pursue his goal of a presidential visit to Tuskegee, Washington decided to directly appeal to the President in 1898. He heard that then-President McKinley was interested in attending a peace celebration for the end of the Spanish-American war in Atlanta, and Washington felt that this was his chance to secure a visit from the President.
Washington reintroduces the problem-struggle-solution paradigm in this passage. The problem is that Washington wants to get the attention of President McKinley so that he will visit Tuskegee.
Washington traveled to Washington, D.C. and was able to get a brief meeting with McKinley. McKinley was interested, but his travel plans were not yet concrete. He asked Washington to come back after his plans were secure, and ask again. Washington returned a few weeks later with a white citizen of Tuskegee to vouch for the invitation to the President from the white citizens as well as the black citizens. There were many race riots occurring at the time of Washington’s second visit, and he argued to McKinley that a visit to Tuskegee would show good faith to both races that reconciliation was possible. McKinley was convinced, and he agreed to visit Tuskegee in December of that year.
Washington then struggles to solidify a visit from the president, meeting with McKinley multiple times and even bringing a white Tuskegee citizen to vouch for the town’s interest. The solution, which according to Washington was accomplished by his dedication to hard work and his perseverance with the President, was McKinley’s agreement to visit Tuskegee later that year.
The town of Tuskegee prepared thoroughly for President McKinley’s visit. White and black citizens worked together to decorate the town and organize a proper reception, and Washington was deeply impressed by the effort and kindness of Tuskegee’s white citizens.
Washington once again highlights the contributions of white Southerners to his work to convince his audience of their virtue.
President McKinley’s visit brought the biggest crowd to Tuskegee that the small Southern agricultural town had ever seen. There was a large procession consisting of state politicians, military officers, and members of the President’s cabinet. Reporters flooded the streets to document the visit. To showcase the school’s progress, the town also held a procession of all of the students on different floats that highlighted the agricultural and industrial work of the Institute.
Fitting with his narrative of racial uplift, this passage serves as evidence of Tuskegee’s progress as an institution. At its inception Washington would have never believed that he would be able to secure a visit from the President of the United States. This passage serves as Washington’s testament to his hard work with the Institute and the progress that can be found in perseverance and labor.
In his address to the school, President McKinley praised the good work and progress of the school’s industrial-based education, and particularly honored the effort and leadership of Washington. McKinley was deeply impressed by the school’s national reputation and its accomplishments. The Secretary of the Navy and the Postmaster General also delivered remarks praising the school for its racial progress and Washington’s work. The Secretary of the Navy even equated Washington’s leadership with that of Presidents Lincoln and Washington. President McKinley and his entire administration seemed strongly impressed by the Institute.
Washington includes this passage to connect his ideology with that of other American figures who accomplished much for the ideals of American freedom. George Washington led America to political and economic freedom from Britain, and Lincoln aided in the freedom of black Americans from slavery. Washington is thus trying to show that his ideology likewise will contribute greatly to the advancement and freedom of black Americans. However, such advancement and freedom seems to only be possible with the approval of elite white Americans, such as McKinley and his administration.
After his narration of President McKinley’s visit, Washington details the progress of the Tuskegee Institute from its founding twenty years before the time that he was writing. While the original school met in a small shanty, the Institute now owns over 2,300 acres of land, with 40 buildings and 70 acres of farmland. The school has 28 departments, each of which specializes in an industry. Despite its exponential growth, the Institute still has to turn down approximately one half of its applicants because it does not have enough room or resources to accommodate the entire South.
Washington includes this passage to numerically represent the Institute’s progress over the years, while also implying that the work is not yet done, because of the many applicants that have to be turned away each year.
Washington explains that Tuskegee’s industrial education is founded on three principles. First, all students need to learn how to accommodate the needs of their current communities. Second, all students will have the skills to be able to make enough money to support themselves or their families. Third, all students will be taught that there is dignity in labor. At the time of this narrative, Tuskegee had recently developed a non-denominational school for training in the ministry. The students of this program, however, are not exempt from labor, and are taught the same principles as the industrial students.
Washington again reiterates the importance of community, labor, and industrial education to Tuskegee and the black community in general.
The value of the school property is up to $300,000 at the time of Washington’s writing, and all of the mortgages have been paid off. The student population has increased from the original 30 to 1,100, and the population of instructors increased from 1 to 86. With such a large group of people, Washington explains that many people question how he keeps things orderly. He claims that students stay out of trouble because most students come to Tuskegee earnestly searching for an education, and because everyone is kept on a strict and busy schedule. Students have required activities from 5 AM to 9:30 PM. Thus students have no opportunity for mischief.
Washington again tries to numerically represent the Institute’s progress over the years. He also claims that his promotion of long days of labor and hard work help to keep students out of trouble. At the time of his narrative, black people were perceived as being more susceptible to crime than other races. Washington’s claim of order and peace at the Institute then serves as a direct refutation of this racist perception (though his idea of purposefully keeping students “out of mischief” also arguably reinforces it).
Washington’s primary aim in his educational program is to develop graduates that raise the reputation of the Institute by establishing their merit and excellence in industry. He hopes all graduates will continue to follow his ideology of race relations, and practice patience and kindness to those of other races. Washington believes that this project is rather successful, and he claims that wherever his graduates go, the communities experience an improvement in economic, social, and moral life.
As discussed before, community is immensely important to Washington. He wants his graduates not only to find personal and individual success, but also to go into the rural communities from which they came and apply their educational skills to enact positive social and economic change.
In the early 1890s Washington began hosting a conference called the “Negro Conference,” which was designed as a forum to discuss and discover the mental, physical, spiritual, and moral needs of the black community. According to Washington, this conference was so useful that it inspired similar conferences in other states, as well as conferences for educators and workers. Likewise, Washington established the “Negro Business League” in Boston, which inspired other cities to adopt similar conferences and organizations.
Washington is once again highlighting the progress made by the Institute and his own hard work.
During the time of all of these conferences, Washington was also traveling to deliver addresses in the interest of promoting his racial ideology in both the North and the South. Washington would address concerns of racial tension, especially in opposition to the practice of lynching, which he abhorred as a practice in its violence and ignorance of the law.
As discussed earlier, lynching was practiced widely in the South from times of slavery up until the late 20th century. Although Washington rarely made strong racial political speeches, he felt that the injustice of lynching was so severe that he could not stay silent.
Washington begins to conclude his narrative by painting a hopeful picture for the future of race relations. He earnestly believes that Southern white people are working hard to eliminate race prejudice, and that such race prejudice should be combated with patience and service from black Americans. If white Americans can see black Americans demonstrating their merit through industry, Washington believes that American society can find great racial progress.
In spite of Washington’s best efforts, his ideology widely failed as a method of racial reconciliation. The hope that Washington discusses here dissolved in the early 20th century, as lynchings and Ku Klux Klan activity increased. Oppressive Jim Crow laws remained in place until the middle of the century, which disenfranchised black citizens from exercising basic civil rights. Progress was eventually found, but it was found in political agitation, not in Washington’s theory of meritocracy and gradual racial uplift.
Writing from the city of Richmond, near to the area that he once slept under the city sidewalk, Washington concludes his narrative by reflecting upon his rise from his birth in slavery to the position of educator, speaker, and leader, and he expresses gratitude at the opportunity afforded to him on account of his hard work.
It is fitting that Washington concludes his narrative with a reflection of his time being homeless in Richmond. Since his narrative is largely focused on his social rise from a slave to a prominent educational thinker and public speaker, this passage is particularly powerful in its illustration of the extreme progress that Washington made in his life. Washington credits this rise to the principles that he has been advocating throughout the narrative: hard work, perseverance, and proof of one’s merit.