During Washington’s time in the nation’s capital, his home state of West Virginia was engaging in a debate of whether to move the capital from Wheeling to Charleston. Washington was asked to canvass the state in a group of representatives of the Charleston area, and after he accepted, his group was able to convince the state to move the capital to Charleston. During this time, Washington gained some local fame as a speaker, and he was tempted to enter political life, as he felt that his promotion of industry, labor, and thrift would help with the uplift of his people. He denied this temptation, however, because he felt that a political career would simply be “selfish.”
This is one of Washington’s first invitations to serve as a public representative, and his future opportunities will follow a similar pattern. He will accept the position with gratitude, fulfill his duty, and then return to his life work. Washington is adamant that he is not pursuing fame or fortune. He simply accepts such invitations to try to accomplish what he feels is the greatest good.
During this time, many young black men had aspirations to be lawyers and congressman, but Washington felt that there needed to be something done to prepare their way. Washington tells the parable of a slave who wanted to learn the guitar, and his master agreed only if the slave paid him three dollars for the first lesson, two dollars for the second, one dollar for the third, and a quarter for the last. The slave agreed, but said he wanted the last lesson first.
Once again, Washington advocates gradual racial progress through labor, not through the attainment of “high” societal positions—or through white Americans actually giving up their power and prejudices.
After Washington worked to move the capital in West Virginia, he was asked by General Armstrong to deliver the “post-graduate” address at Hampton’s commencement ceremonies. Washington readily agreed, and on the way to Hampton he reflected on his original journey to the school as a student, and the hardships that he overcame to get there. On this second trip, he was able to ride the train the entire way directly to Hampton.
Washington will often return to places or positions that he originally had to struggle through in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of his theory of uplift. He wants the reader to know that his hard work is what has enabled him to return to Hampton unencumbered by the financial burdens that he encountered as a poor student.
Upon arriving at Hampton, Washington received a warm welcome. He was very impressed that the school had further developed its industrial curriculum, and he felt that the institute was even closer to fulfilling the needs of black Americans than it had been five years before when he had been in school. Washington was also impressed that the students were not required to fit an abstract educational mold, but rather they were focused on meeting the needs of their communities through the development of industries.
Washington adopts much of his personal educational philosophy from Hampton, so many of these ideas will recur later in the narrative when he discusses the educational philosophy of Tuskegee.
Washington’s address was well received, and once he returned to Malden, he was surprised by a letter addressed to him from General Armstrong asking him to return to Hampton as a teacher. Washington believes that a large factor in this invitation was that his students from Malden that attended Hampton were always well prepared, and often enrolled in advanced classes immediately.
Washington tries to highlight that his new position was granted to him because of his merit as a teacher, not because of his relationship with General Armstrong or any other factors.
Around the time that Washington was invited to teach at Hampton, General Armstrong was trying a new “experiment” of educating Native Americans at Hampton. While most people felt that Native Americans could not benefit from an education, Armstrong was eager to include them in his educational project. He found some of the most “wild” Native Americans from the Western territories and put them under Washington’s charge. While Washington felt torn because of his love for his work in West Virginia, he felt that he could not deny any request of Armstrong, so he immediately accepted the offer.
These following passages demonstrate the complexity of American race relations at the end of the 19th century. Although Native Americans were systematically murdered and forced to move out to the Western territories, most white Americans felt that Native Americans were still racially superior to black Americans. Native Americans were seen as sort of an “in between” race in comparison to black and white people. They were still often subject to harmful racial stereotypes, but they were held as a better or more valuable race than blacks.
Washington’s residence at Hampton was with 75 Native American youths, and he was in charge as the “house father.” At first he was doubtful because he felt racially alienated from them. Washington thought that Native Americans felt superior to the white man and to the black man especially, because the black man’s submission to slavery was a cultural taboo for Native Americans. However, Washington was soon completely trusted by the Native Americans because he treated them like human beings. The only things that they resented were giving up cultural traditions like long hair and smoking, but Washington suggests that these sacrifices are a necessity, since white Americans will not respect anyone until they act, dress, and speak like them.
Washington espouses a very conservative political ideology in this passage. He suggests that assimilation to white norms, not amalgamation or the blending of cultures, was the proper way to achieve racial uplift. Washington believed that it was necessary to adopt and perform the ideals of white society in order to achieve true racial harmony—essentially, minorities need to change to fit white society’s views, rather than white society changing to accept other cultures as they are. This belief seems rooted in Washington’s assumption that what white society calls “civilized” and “respectable” is the objective ideal of these qualities, not something relative to culture and time.
After the language barrier was surmounted, Washington found that the Native Americans had similar interests to black Americans, especially in trade education. Black students widely accepted the Native Americans at the school despite a small minority that protested their admission. Washington wishes that white students would engage in the same type of acceptance, because the increase of true social value is found in the lifting up of others and the relative uplift of all civilization. To Washington, white students are doing themselves an educational and personal disservice by excluding those of other races.
It is not wholly surprising that Native Americans and black Americans had similar interests. After all, they were both politically, economically, and socially oppressed by the white majority. Once again Washington emphasizes the value of trade education.
This problem of racial segregation reminds Washington of an instance in which former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was forced to ride in a luggage car despite the fact that he paid an equal amount to his white peers who were allowed to sit in the passenger car. When these peers came back to comfort Douglass, they found him sitting tall and proud, and claiming that the true degradation was upon those enforcing such horrible segregation.
Washington interprets this story of Douglass to mean that black people should not feel degraded by immoral racist practices, because dignity and poise is found internally. Washington also repeatedly insists that racism hurts white people more than black people because it degrades their moral character. He generally excludes the economic, political, and psychological harms of racism in such discussions.
Washington tells another story of a man who was so light skinned that the train conductor could not tell if he was black or white, although the man was sitting in the blacks only section of the train. The conductor examined him for a long time, looking at his hair, eyes, and other features, but once he saw the passenger’s feet, the conductor promptly decided that he was black, and allowed him to continue sitting in his seat. Washington is greatly amused by this story.
White society used all sorts of absurd measures to determine someone’s race. Many states adopted the “one-drop rule,” which said that anyone with black ancestry anywhere in their family tree should be considered legally black. These types of racial qualifications were founded in a view that race is determined by biological makeup, a view that is debunked by scientists today.
Washington continues, saying that the measure of a true gentleman is in his treatment of members of a less fortunate race. To demonstrate this, he tells a story of a black man tipping his hat to George Washington, and George Washington returning the gesture. When his friends were appalled at his action, Washington replied that he would not let some “poor, ignorant” black man be more polite than he.
This appeal to authority is a questionable logical move for Washington, as he appeals to the founding fathers for authority on racial equality. Washington does not mention that General Washington, along with many other founding fathers, was a slave owner.
During Washington’s time with the Native American boys at Hampton, he experienced the importance of racial caste in American society. For example, one Native American boy became ill and needed to return home to his reservation, and Washington escorted the boy to the nation’s capital. On the steamboat, Washington and the boy went up to the dining room after most of the patrons had dined. Despite their similar complexions, the Native American boy was allowed in the dining room and Washington was not.
This passage demonstrates the arbitrariness of American racial ideology in the 19th century. Although Washington and this Native American boy looked very similar, Washington was denied access on account of his blackness.
Likewise, even black foreign nationals received different treatment than black Americans. Washington tells the story of a Moroccan black man who attempted to stay at a local hotel and was denied a room because he was black. Upon finding out that he was Moroccan, however, the hotel gladly accepted him.
Once again, American racial ideology in the 19th century was largely arbitrary and had blurred lines of application. Unfortunately, the absurdity of situations like this was usually lost on the people actually perpetuating racist ideas and systems.
After Washington’s work with Native Americans for a year, another position opened up at Hampton as a night-school teacher. General Armstrong wanted to provide an educational opportunity for those too poor to attend Hampton, so he developed a system in which pupils would work for ten hours out of the day and attend school for two hours each night. Their compensation would be just above their room and board. After one or two years in the night school, they would be allowed to enroll in the day school and pay for it with the extra money from their night-school labor.
This night school provides Washington with a model by which to form his night school at Tuskegee. In fact, Washington adopts some of the exact same specifications from Hampton for the Tuskegee night school.
Washington was placed in charge of the night-school, and he loved the job. According to him, his students would labor happily and hard during the day and would only stop studying at night when the lights out bell rang. He admired their work ethic and even nicknamed their class “The Plucky Class.” Almost all of the students found success upon completion of the program, and at the time of Washington’s writing, Hampton’s night school had multiplied from its initial twelve students to three or four hundred.
Like his work at the night school in Malden, Washington appreciates that the school values labor above all else. Students are forced to demonstrate their worth through hard work, and Washington feels that this is an excellent way to test student merit.