After traveling the countryside and seeing the awful conditions of the people, Washington felt deeply discouraged. To Washington, his travels confirmed the idea that a traditional New England education that is focused on book learning would not be appropriate or sufficient for the people of the region.
Washington’s conclusion that black Americans need industrial education and not book learning was practical, but short sighted. While black Americans were empowered to make a living economically, Washington’s industrial education did not prepare them to fight the rhetorical and legal battles against political and judicial subjugation that prevented black Americans from participating fully in American society for decades after this narrative was written. More generally, it also ignored the individual human pleasures and value to be derived from “book learning.”
After conferencing with the citizens of Tuskegee, Washington set the opening day of the Institute for July 4, 1881. White and black citizens alike were quite interested in the school, but white citizens were skeptical of the education of the black citizens because they thought it might foster disunity between the races. They felt that the more that black citizens are educated, the more that they lose their economic value. These people had an image of an educated black citizen as a fancily dressed man in a high hat who “was determined to live by his wits” rather than his labor. It was difficult for the white citizens to imagine anything else.
The idea that the education of black Americans was a waste of time has its roots in slavery. Many slave masters felt that education and literacy were not only wasteful but dangerous, as they gave slaves ideas of freedom and equality that the slave owners believed were not applicable to slaves, since they were not seen as fully human. This idea transferred over to the post-Civil War era, in which many white Americans still felt that black Americans were meant to be a laboring class that did not need education.
Washington says that he relied on two men in particular at the beginning of the school. These two men, Mr. George W. Campbell and Mr. Lewis Adams, were the citizens who originally wrote General Armstrong requesting a teacher in Tuskegee. Mr. Campbell was a former slave owner and Mr. Adams was a former slave, but Washington claims that they were two noble men who worked hard for peaceful racial relations in Tuskegee. He often solicited their advice and support.
Washington is usually quick to point out that some of the men who helped him achieve success were former slave owners. He believes that their prejudice was largely abolished by the time that he interacted with them, and he sees them as great men of high society.
Washington particularly admired Mr. Adams, who was an unschooled mechanic that also knew the trades of harness-making, tin smithing, and shoemaking from his bondage in slavery. Washington believes that Adams’ mental prowess was developed by his ability to learn multiple trades, and that more generally the most reliable black Americans were those who learned a trade during the time of slavery.
Washington’s idea that slavery served as an empowering tool for learning trades is extremely problematic, in that slaves were forced to learn such trades, often at the threat of violence or death. Such an institution is not as fortuitous as Washington makes it out to be.
On the first morning of operation for the school, about 30 students showed up, and Washington was the only teacher. Many more students were interested in the school, but Washington decided to only take those who were above the age of 15. Many of the students were actually public school teachers, some even nearing the age of 40. However, many of the younger pupils surpassed the ability of the older teachers. Washington criticizes these teachers, saying that they placed more value in high-sounding subjects like Greek and Latin than practical education. He says that they felt self-important if they could name the long title of a book that they had read. The longer the title, the more important they felt.
This passage reaffirms Washington’s implication that many black teachers simply were in the profession to avoid labor. He clearly finds little pleasure or value in Classical education or any kind of “book learning,” and so assumes that these endeavours are inherently inferior to vocational education in which Washington himself finds pleasure and value.
To demonstrate the backwardness of some of these teachers, Washington tells the story of a young man who was covered in filth and grease, with weeds all around his cabin, sitting in the middle of his cabin reading a French grammar book.
While most of the students were interested in subjects like grammar, banking, and mathematics, few of the pupils actually applied such principles to their lives. Most students did not even have a bank account or a bank in their hometowns. Some students did not even have a middle name, and they just adopted an initial that did not stand for anything, because they thought it made them look distinguished. Washington believes that most of these types of students were just getting an education to make more money as public school teachers.
Once again, Washington is questioning the purity of these students’ motives and he thinks that they were simply trying to avoid labor. While Washington believes that the accumulation of wealth was an indicator of merit, he also believes in the sincere moral value of labor and overcoming as many obstacles as possible—thus making money quickly and easily is not seen as a positive thing for him.
In spite of the difficulties with these types of students, Washington claims that most of the students were hard working and quite willing to learn. Washington set out to correct them, so he accompanied lessons like African geography with practical lessons like where to place silverware at the dinner table. Washington even had a student who had been studying the cube root and banking but did not know his multiplication tables. Washington had to encourage him to learn the fundamentals first.
Washington is reaffirming that all education should have some connection to real community needs. To Washington, education must have practical application or it is useless.
Each week at the Institute brought more and more pupils, and after one month Washington had 50 pupils total. However, most of them could only stay for 2-3 months and wanted to accelerate their education to get a diploma during that time.
Many students were unable to take 9 months off of work in order to get an education. Washington respected some of their ambitions, but he felt that many students were trying to get a diploma for superficial reasons, not for personal betterment and community uplift.
After a month and a half, a new face appeared at the school. Miss Olivia A. Davidson, Washington’s future wife, showed up looking for work as an instructor. Davidson was born and raised in Ohio, but she worked as a teacher in Mississippi and Memphis. Washington tells the story of a time when one of Davidson’s pupils came down with the small pox, and no one would go near the student in fear of infection. Davidson, however, sat by the boy’s side and nursed him back to health. When the city of Memphis had an outbreak of yellow fever, Davidson was one of the first to volunteer her services as nurse. Her experiences as a teacher and nurse in the South showed her that black Americans needed more than just book learning. They needed a more practical education.
Washington tends to romanticize those in his life who he respects. He thus portrays Miss Davidson as a selfless and devoted laborer for the cause of gradual racial uplift. Even when he suggests that her labor practices are unhealthy and physically harmful, he still lauds her work ethic. He engages in the same type of romanticization of other figures like General Armstrong and President Cleveland.
Davidson was educated at Hampton, and upon graduating Hampton she pursued further studies at a black school in Massachusetts with the help of a donor from New England. While in the North, someone remarked to her that she was so light skinned that she could pass as white in order to have an easier life. She replied that she would never deceive anyone on account of her color. Washington deeply admired her honesty, grit, and determination. He credits her with laying the foundations of the Tuskegee Institute.
The practice of racial passing was relatively common in the 19th and early 20th century. Since many black Americans were light-skinned due to a traumatic history of sexual assault in and after slavery, they were able to pass as white or as another race in order to avoid racially oppressive treatment. Washington seems to dislike such a practice, however, and he implies that it is dishonest.
Washington and Davidson both agreed that hygiene, cleanliness, and industrial education should all be key aspects of the curriculum at Tuskegee. Since many of the pupils came from farming districts, they wanted to teach these pupils not only how to provide education to others but also how to farm more effectively and efficiently. Washington and Davidson wanted their pupils to be moral, spiritual, educational, and practical leaders.
The scope of such an education was overwhelming to Washington and Davidson. They only had a small shanty, fifty students, and two instructors, but they were growing quickly. However, they saw, as they traveled through the countryside, that their efforts for uplift were finding a relative degree of success in the rural communities. Despite this, many students still came to Tuskegee to get an education that would supply them with a life of ease, free from labor. To illustrate this, Washington tells a parable of a man who was working in the cotton fields of Alabama during the summer, and he was so hot and tired that he decided that he was “called to preach.”
Washington’s ultimate goal in his educational project was to see the rural communities of Alabama transform into uplifted and “civilized” communities. Throughout the narrative, he will continually return to this idea, and he will measure the success of the Institute by the degree of transformation in surrounding rural communities.
In the midst of Washington and Davidson’s anxiety, and about three months after the opening of the school, an old plantation went up for sale just outside of Tuskegee. They felt that this plantation would be the perfect site for a permanent establishment of the Institute, but they had no money. They were able to strike up a deal with the owner in which they paid $250 down and paid the remaining balance in installments. To get the initial payment, Washington appealed to the treasurer of Hampton, General J. F. B. Marshall, who lent him the money personally. Washington felt a great burden from the loan, for he had never had more than $100 in his hand at one time. He was determined to pay it off as soon as he had the means.
Washington often leans on the help and generosity of his contacts and community for his success. Although he frequently claims that Tuskegee’s success was only a result of the hard work of himself and his students, he often gets quite a lot of help from those around him, including his rich white contacts from Hampton. To a certain degree, Washington’s accomplishments are inaccessible to other poor black citizens because his accomplishments are largely contingent upon the support of others.
Washington moved the school onto the plantation as quickly as possible. The farm was already equipped with a cabin, a stable, a kitchen, and a hen house. The school eventually had so many pupils that Washington had to clean out the hen house to make more room. Most of the work done to prepare the plantation for school use was completed by the students in the afternoon. Many of the students resisted this requirement of labor, and in order to inspire their help, he would lead the way clearing land. They worked until they cleared 20 acres and planted a crop.
Some students were resistant to the idea of working on a plantation for their education, which was understandable since it was an image directly reminiscent of the degradation of slavery. However, Washington was determined that students’ perceptions of labor would be transformed by his example.
While Washington was leading the students in the clearing of the land, Miss Davidson was planning on ways to repay the loan. She would hold festivals in which she would sell cakes or chickens donated by the townspeople of Tuskegee. Washington claims that the white families donated just as much as the black families. These festivals, however, did not raise a large sum of money. Some of the older black citizens could not donate much at all, and their donations were as small as five cents. Washington notes one donation in particular, from an old black woman, that was only six eggs. Washington says that this is the most touching gift that he ever received for the school.
Washington once again highlights the support white families offered to his educational project in order to show that white Southerners are progressive in their racial views—a controversial claim in light of social and political practices in the South at the turn of the century. The story of the old woman donating her six eggs also reflects a parable in the Bible, in which Jesus says that a woman who gives all her money—two small coins—has given a greater gift to God than all the rich men giving large amounts, but only a fraction of their actual wealth.