Underwood and Underwood. Booker T. Washington, President of the Negro Industrial School, Tuskegee, Alabama. 1899. Public Domain.

Booker T. Washington's Christmas Story

BySarah Morgan Smith
On December 10, 2019

In “The Problem of the South” (July 11, 1900), Booker T. Washington uses a folksy anecdote about a Christmas “miracle” to illustrate his point about the importance of bringing prudence, hard work and self-reliance to bear on the pursuit of self-improvement. While the piece specifically addresses the problems of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South, Washington also offers it as advice to any group of people struggling for economic and social advancement.

Our ambitions, Washington argues, are most useful to us when they are useful to others. They will more likely be fulfilled when they are grounded in what we can do in our particular times and places to secure them. For the African American in the South at the turn of the century, the particular time and place most often was a small agricultural community, dominated by white landowners to whom African Americans had for centuries—and until quite recently under duress—given their physical labor. Washington argues that Southern blacks can rise in the social hierarchy by becoming skilled craftsmen. This will make them indispensable to the class who formerly enslaved them and now must hire their services. It will give African Americans higher status in the community, at the same time giving them dignity, pride and self-respect.

I claim that, in the present condition of our people, industrial education will have a special place in helping us out of our present state. We find that in many cases it is a positive sin to take a black boy from an agricultural district and send him to a school or a city where he is educated in everything in heaven and earth that has no connection with agricultural life, with the result that he remains in the city in an attempt to live by his wits. And again, my friends, you will find that in proportion as we give industrial training in connection with academic training, there go with it a knowledge and a feeling that there is a dignity, a civilizing power, in intelligent labor. And you will find at those institutions where industrial education is emphasized, and the student enabled to work out his own expenses, that the very effort gives him a certain amount of self-reliance or backbone he would not get without such effort on his own part. When the Bible says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” I am tempted to believe it means about what it says. I believe it is largely possible for a race as well as an individual to work out its own salvation, and in the South we are to work out our salvation in a large measure in the field, in the college, in the shop, and with the hammer and the saw.

Once, in the South, an old colored man was very anxious to have turkey for his Christmas dinner, and he prayed for it night after night: “Lord, please send this darkey1 a turkey”; but no turkey came. So one night, when it got near Christmas time, he prayed: “Lord, please send this darkey to a turkey”; and he got it that same night. I don’t know how you white people get hold of turkeys, but, my friends, we don’t get hold of very much, as a race or as individuals, unless we put forth something of the kind of effort that old black man put forth. There are three things as a race we have to learn to do if we want to get on our feet. We have got to learn to put skill and dignity and brains into all our occupations. A few days ago a gentleman asked me in what way the North could protect the Negro in the exercise of his rights in the South. I answered, as I say to you tonight: Make the Negro the most useful man in the community. It will constitute his most lasting and most competent protection, whether in the North or in the South. Help him to do things so well that no one can do them better. Help him to do a common thing in an uncommon manner, and that will in a large measure help to solve our problem.

The black man, in connection with all this, has to learn that we have to pay the price; that a race, like an individual, must pay the price for anything that it gets. No individual or race can get hold of something for nothing, it has got to pay the price — starting at the bottom, and gradually, earnestly, thru a series of years, working up toward the highest civilization. One of the hardest lessons for a race, like an individual, to learn is that it will grow strong and powerful in proportion as it learns to do well the little things about its doors. The race that learns this lesson may be retarded in its upward progress, but it can never be defeated. In a larger measure thruout this country the black man should seek to make himself, not a burden, but a helper to the community in which he lives; not a receiver, but a giver; not a destroyer, but a producer in the highest sense. I want to see the Negro put that intelligence into labor which will dignify it, and lift it out of the atmosphere of sloth and drudgery into that atmosphere where people will feel that labor is glorified and dignified.

1In his speeches before white audiences, Washington’s folksy anecdotes about African Americans in the South frequently used the condescending and demeaning terms that Southern whites used to describe black people. Some of Washington’s biographers argue he used this language as a rhetorical ploy to allay white fears that the measures he advocated for black advancement might truly empower African Americans, enabling them to gain higher pay and respect for their civil rights.  Such an outcome was precisely his hope, these biographers contend.

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