Washington defines the Reconstruction Period as the time between 1867-1878, which is also the time that he spent as a student at Hampton and teaching in Malden. He says that the period was governed by two major concerns for black people—first, a pursuit of Latin and Greek education, and second, a desire to run for political office.
Washington greatly disapproved of both of these concerns, as he felt that Greek and Latin education was useless to poor black Americans and that black Americans were not socially or educationally “developed” enough to run for office.
While Washington feels that the desire for education was noble, he believes that newly freed black Americans had no “proper conception” of what constituted a true education. According to Washington, most black people deemed Greek and Latin learning a marker of superiority, and education in general was seen as a means by which to be freed from labor.
Washington wished to instill the opposite ideology of these beliefs. He believed that black people should prove their worth as a working class first before they moved on to “higher” pursuits like Greek and Latin. He also detested that some black Americans were trying to avoid a life of labor, and felt that these people were simply being lazy. Western educational practices, however, still greatly valued Greek and Latin education and book learning, and used such an education as a mark of class and social status. Thus it is understandable that many black Americans wished to pursue that type of education in order to uplift themselves.
Washington states that most black people who received an education found work in either education or the ministry. Although some of these educated black Americans were excellent practitioners of their profession, Washington implies that most of them were no better off than their pupils or congregations. Some teachers could not even write their names.
Washington is deeply critical of black teachers because in his eyes, many black Americans pursued teaching simply so that they would not have to work in the fields. Since the institution of slavery connected labor with degradation, it is indeed true that many black Americans sought professions outside of manual labor during Reconstruction. However, it is quite a cynical conclusion of Washington’s that most people wanted to be trained in teaching not to help poor black Americans or promote equal education (or simply because they enjoyed teaching or found it fulfilling), but to avoid labor as a result of laziness.
The ministry was no better off than the teaching profession. According to Washington, many newly educated black men would receive a “call” to preaching soon after they learned to read. In Washington’s town, the “call” consisted of a process in which the individual received the call while in church, the news of the call would spread through the neighborhood, and then the individual would publicly yield to or resist the call. Because so many people expressed interest in the ministry after receiving an education and the “call,” the population of ministers in churches exploded. Some churches had as many as 18 ministers for 200 congregants. Washington cynically states that he never received such a call, despite his dedication to receiving an education.
Washington also was very critical of the ministry, and he felt that most black pastors simply went into the profession or received a “call” to ministry in order to avoid labor. In all of Washington’s critiques of black leaders, he fails to recognize that labor was formerly used as a tool for the subjugation and humiliation of black people in slavery. Many black people felt that avoiding labor was thus a way of establishing subjectivity and personhood after slavery. Washington, however, attributes those who avoid labor with laziness. He is particularly harsh toward ministers in this critique, because he feels that they should be held to a higher moral standard than others, and the greatest moral duty, according to Washington, is proving merit through labor.
After expressing disdain for the amount of black Americans getting an education for what Washington feels were the wrong reasons, he likens the status of black Americans during this period to infancy. He says that black people depended on the Federal Government like an infant on its mother, which he sees as a natural relationship, since the government granted black Americans their freedom. Washington feels that the Federal Government failed, however, in not providing a proper means to an education for black people, and many of the problems that he listed above were directly related to this dereliction of responsibility by the government. Washington feels that if there would have been a proper education provided to black Americans, they could be in a completely different sociological and economic state than they are now.
The call for a Federally provided education is perhaps one of Washington’s more liberal ideas. He does admit that the government didn’t do enough in terms of educational provision after the abolition of slavery. Similarly, most liberal educational thinkers suggest that the project of the Reconstruction Era did not go far enough for the uplift of newly freed slaves. On the subject of education, Washington agrees—arguably going against some of his other more rigid ideas of success being only the result of merit and labor.
Washington suggests that Reconstruction policy in general involved setting up, through a series of political and economic mistakes, a temporary bubble of progress that would pop as soon as the “artificial” supports were removed. He also feels that his race was being used as a political tool to get white people elected to office, and that the political agitation of the time simply created more unrest and problems for black people. Rather than depending upon the Federal Government for aid and support, Washington suggests that black Americans focus on bettering themselves through thriving in their already existing industries and owning more property.
Washington pivots from his liberally inflected advocacy of Federal education to a more conservative view of the Reconstruction era. Many conservative politicians and thinkers at the time felt that the Federal government was creating artificial racial progress by forcing Southerners to bend to the ideals of racial progress through army occupation and legislation. Conservative thinkers believed that black people needed to pursue uplift on their own if they were to be successful in establishing themselves in white society after slavery.
The alluring draw of political office at the time even tempted Washington, but he resisted because he felt that his calling to education was much more significant. He feels that an education of “hand, head, and heart” is much more valuable than holding political office, for many politicians at the time could not even read and had questionable morals. Washington tells the parable of hearing many brick-masons building a house and calling out “Hurry up Governor!” When Washington enquired as to what they meant by “governor,” he found out that one of the masons was once the Lieutenant Governor of the state. Washington also qualifies his detraction of politicians by suggesting that although most politicians were unsavory, some politicians were noble people of good morals.
Washington believed that becoming a politician would be too far removed from the reality of race relations in the U.S. Washington distrusted any profession that did not advocate labor, especially ministers and politicians. Washington also held the conservative view that many black people were unprepared for office, and that they would surely ruin the country if they were to get elected because they did not have the experience or education to work in government. This view is certainly problematic, but Washington believed that black people must prove their worth in labor before moving forward to higher positions.
Because of the many “mistakes” committed by black people during Reconstruction, Southerners at the time of Washington’s writing felt that such mistakes would be committed again if black people were again placed in positions of power. Washington argues the contrary—that black Americans have progressed greatly since Reconstruction and that the mistakes committed were natural to a race held in subjugation by slavery. Washington proposes that the true solution to the “race problem” is that each state needs to ensure that the law is applied fairly and equally to people of both races.
Around the turn of the century when Washington was writing, the practice of lynching as well as the infamous Jim Crow laws were in effect. The justice system often worked against black Americans, turning a blind eye and often even participating in the murderous lynchings. Many Southern laws were also constructed to prevent black Americans from owning property or voting, two rights Constitutionally guaranteed to them. Washington believed that the fair application of the law would ameliorate many racial issues.
At the end of Reconstruction in 1878, Washington decided to go to Washington D.C. for eight months to study. The institution at which Washington was studying did not promote industrial education, and despite the students’ nice clothes, financial security, and academic superiority, he felt that the students at Hampton had an advantage over those at this school because they were taught self-reliance through labor. Although the students at the D.C. school were materially better off, Washington feels that Hampton’s focus on the industries and labor provided a more well-rounded education.
Washington often uses foils, or constructed opposites, to demonstrate the virtues of his ideology. In this case, the D.C. school serves as a foil to Hampton. The school in the capital was materially and academically superior, but Washington thinks that the distinguishing factor of excellence that propels Hampton over this other school is self-reliance through labor.
Many black Americans saw Washington D.C. as an ideal place to live, Washington claims. Since a few African Americans held government positions, and the city had a large black population, black people enjoyed a life of relative easy and protection of the law. However, Washington felt that a great deal of these people were focused on superficial elements of life, and this morally bankrupted many of them, as they did not value labor and hard work.
Again, Washington sees some of the value of D.C.’s social environment, but he is critical of its perceived lack of appreciation for the value of labor.
To demonstrate this, Washington tells the parable of girls who would grow up working as laundry women with their mothers. However, after eight or so years of education, they would desire more things—nice hats, shoes, and clothes—but they would not have the means by which to provide those things. Washington feels that book learning is still valuable to them, but these girls would have been better off if they would have studied how to perfect the laundry industry as well.
Washington uses this parable to confirm that his educational ideology is the correct one—that book learning must be paired with industry if students are to find economic success. What Washington does not mention, however, is that his educational philosophy actually privileges labor over book learning. To him, studies are secondary to labor.