The Problem of the South

No study questions


One of the last generation of African Americans to be born into slavery, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) rose to become a leading educator, well-known orator, and advisor on racial issues to several presidents. Named in 1881 the leader of the new Tuskegee Institute, an industrial school for African Americans in Alabama, he built it into a major educational institution where students learned agricultural science, carpentry, brick making, home economics and other vocational skills. By 1900 Washington was regarded as the nation’s leading advocate for black economic and social advancement.

In the South of 1900, opportunities for such advancement were few for African Americans.  Most worked as share croppers or as laborers in the most menial positions, and many were trapped in debt peonage by the owners of the land they farmed. Washington offered industrial education as a means of raising black status in the South.

This speech before the National Education Association — a largely white audience — displays Washington’s rhetorical strategy as an advocate for African American uplift, a project that in 1900 depended to a great extent on the goodwill of the white people who controlled social and political life in both North and South. Washington does not ask for financial support of Tuskegee (although behind the scenes he raised a lot of money for the school). Instead he speaks of what black people can do for themselves. He does appeal to the white conscience to approve his plan for black advancement, but he balances this appeal with reassurances that black people are happy and comfortable living in the South. While reminding the audience that black labor cleared the forests to make agricultural land available and then grew the crops that made the South prosperous, he remarks that any solution to the problems faced by black Americans must do justice to white Americans as well as black.

Washington uses folksy anecdotes to build an argument that ambition is most likely to find success if it is grounded in the particular needs of a person’s time and place. For Southern blacks, the best route to success is through 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 their communities, at the same time giving them dignity, pride and self-respect.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We stand tonight on historic ground. Charleston and South Carolina have made history — history that will always occupy a prominent place in the annals of our country. But South Carolina was never greater or prouder than tonight, when, with open arms and generous hospitality, she extends a welcome to the educators of America, regardless of race or color. The world is moving forward, not backward. Under the shadow of Fort Sumter we find ourselves tonight. If history be true, I think that it was nearly forty years ago that a little company of men, moved by a different spirit, clad in different uniforms, armed with different weapons, came to this vicinity to bring cheer, comfort, food, and reinforcement to an endangered, suffering, and starving garrison. The army that comes into Charleston today comes with guns beaten into plowshares, and swords into pruning hooks. It comes with no special regalia. Already we find that Fort Sumter has surrendered and Charleston is ours. It is in this spirit and with this object we come to you — to bring relief, the relief that comes from the spreading of education and intelligence, kindness and brotherly love, among all nations and all classes. It is when we witness such scenes as this that our belief in the ability of our country to work out all its problems becomes stronger, and that the education of all the people, in heart, head, and hand, will be the solution of all the trying problems that surround and confront this southland, where both races have had difficulties to contend with which no other people have ever met.

When we disarm ourselves of prejudices and passions, we must acknowledge that the white South owes much to the Negro, and that the Negro owes much to the white South. The Negro has a right to cherish love for the South. It was here that we came centuries ago in our heathenism, and here we were taught the religion of Christ; here we came without a language, and here we were taught the Anglo- Saxon tongue; here we came without habits of thrift, and here we were taught industry and economy. The Negro has a right to cherish memories of the South. In a large degree it has been the brawn and muscle of the black man that have cleared the forests, opened the mines, and built the railroads; that have grown the rice and cotton and the sugar-cane; that have made the South rich and prosperous. In all discussion and legislation bearing upon this subject we must keep in mind that the Negro has a peculiar claim upon the conscience, the intelligence, and the hearts of the American people. You must remember that you are dealing with a race not only forced to come into this country against its will, but in the face of its most earnest protest. These people have a claim upon your intelligence and your sympathies that perhaps no other people can have. And, now that we are here, the great problem that is confronting us is how to solve this problem in justice to southern white men, among whom the Negro must live, and in justice to the Negro himself.

During the last thirty-five years quite a number of suggestions have been made looking to a solution of this problem. A few years ago some six hundred of our people sailed from Savannah, Ga., bound for Liberia, and people said all at once: “We have found a way to solve this problem; our people have sailed for Africa, and the problem is solved.” But those people forgot that on this same morning, here in the black belt of the South, perhaps before breakfast, about six hundred more black children came into the world.

I have a good friend in the state of Georgia who is very earnest in his belief that the way to solve this difficulty is to set aside some territory in the far West and put the Negro in it, and let him grow up there a distant race. There is difficulty in that way. In the first place, you would have to build a wall about that territory to keep the black man in it, and, in the second place, you would have to build a wall about it — and I suspect a much higher one — to keep the white man out of it.

I was on the train not very long ago with a gentleman who had a third suggestion. He contended that the problem was solving itself, because the Negro was so fast becoming a part of other races that there soon would be no Negro race in this country. There is a difficulty about that. If it is proven that a man has even 1 per cent. of African blood, he becomes a Negro every time; the 99 per cent. of Anglo-Saxon blood counts for nothing — the man always falls to our pile in the count of the races. It takes 100 per cent. to make a white man, and 1 per cent. will make a Negro every time. So, you see, we are a stronger race than the white race.

This problem will not be solved in any of these ways. There is only one way to solve it — by treating the Negro with humanity and justice, just as I find the people of Charleston treating the black man today. When you go still farther in the study of this question, you will find that the Negro is the only race that has ever had the rare privilege of coming to America by reason of having a very special and very pressing invitation to come here. The unfortunate white race came here against the protests of the leading citizens of this country in 1492 and later; while, for some reason, we seem to have been so important to the business prosperity of this country that we had to be sent for, and sent for at great cost and inconvenience on the part of our white friends. And now we have the reputation of being rather an obliging and polite race; after having put our white friends to so much trouble, expense, and inconvenience to get us here, it would be rather unkind and ungracious on our part not to stay here. Now, my friends, that we have got the white men of the North and the white men of the South face to face, I want to make one request of them, and I want to do it in the form of a story:

At one time an old colored man in South Carolina sold a hog to a white man for $5. The white man paid his money, took the hog, and went on his way. When he got about half way home the hog got out of the pen and went back home to the old Negro, Uncle Zeke. About noon another white man came along and wanted to buy a hog; and Uncle Zeke sold him the same hog for another $5. The second white man went on his way home, and met the first coming back to Uncle Zeke’s house for his hog. He said, “Mister, where did you get that hog? Uncle Zeke sold me that hog this morning for $5, and he got away from me and went back.” “Well,” said the other, “he sold him to me this afternoon.” “How are we going to settle this thing?” said the first purchaser. “Let’s go back and see Uncle Zeke about it,” said the other. They went back to Uncle Zeke’s and the first one said: “How about this hog? Didn’t you sell him to me this morning for $5? ” “I sure did,” said Uncle Zeke. “Didn’t you sell him to me this afternoon for $5?” said the other man. “I sure did,” said Uncle Zeke. “Well, how about this thing?” they said, “we don’t understand it.” Uncle Zeke said: “For Gawd, can’t you white people go settle that thing among yourselves?” Now, for thirty-five years, my friends, you white people of the North and of the South have been contending as to which one of you is responsible for bringing the black man into this country. Now that you are here face to face, I want you to get together and settle this thing among yourselves.

But I assure you, my friends, I am not here this evening to plead for education merely in behalf of the Negro. Those of you who understood slavery and what it meant will agree with me when I say that slavery wrought almost as much permanent injury to the white man during its existence as to the black man. And those of you who understand conditions as they are today in the South will agree with me that so long as the rank and file of our people are in poverty and ignorance, so long will there be a millstone about the neck of progress in the South. So I plead, not for the Negro alone, but in a higher spirit, that you will remove the burden of poverty and ignorance from both races thruout the South.

In a larger degree, if we would work out our problem as black people, we have got to consider the immediate needs that surround and confront us as a race; and in a brief, earnest manner get down to the bottom facts of our conditions.

At one time, in Alabama, an old colored man, teaching a Sunday-school class, was trying to explain to the class how the children of Israel were able to cross the Red Sea without getting wet, and how the forces of Pharaoh got into the water. He said: “It was this way: When the first party came along it was early in the morning, and it was cold, and the ice as hard and thick, and they had no trouble in crossing. But when the next party came along it was 12 o’clock in the day, and the ice had begun to melt, and when they went on it it broke and they went down. There was in the class a man who had been going to school, and he said: “I don’t understand that kind of an explanation. I have been studying that kind of thing, and my geography teaches me that ice does not form so near the equator.” The old minister said: “I was expecting just that sort of a question. The time I am speaking ’bout was before they had any gografys or ‘quators there.” That old minister, in his straightforward way, was simply trying to brush aside all the artificiality and get to the bedrock of common-sense; and that is what we have to do to lift our people up.

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.

A short time ago I was in the state of Iowa, and I saw a white man out there planting corn, and this white man was sitting down upon some kind of machine. All the work this white man seemed to do was to hold back two fine spirited horses and keep them from working themselves to death. He was not only sitting down planting corn, but he had a big red umbrella hoisted over him. When it went over the ground, I think that machine plowed up the ground, and I think it made all the furrows; I am sure it dropped the corn in the furrows and covered the corn. I was in one or our southern states later, and I saw a black man planting corn. I saw him competing in the market with this white man in Iowa. He had a mule going about a mile an hour. He had a pole on the plow. The mule would go a step or two and stop, and he would get the pole and hit him to make him start again. He would go on again and stop, and the old fellow would go and get a stone and knock the old plow together. He would go on a little farther, and then the old fellow would have to stop and fix up the harness — made partly of ragsand partly of leather. He would go on a little farther, and have to stop and fix his “galluses” before he got to the end of the row. He was what we call a “One gallus farmer” — had only a strap across one shoulder. He would go on in that fashion and plow up the ground, and another black man, with the same kind of mule, would come behind him and lay off the furrows; another would come behind him and put in the corn, and a fourth would come behind and cover the corn. Under no conceivable circumstances is it possible for that black man, following that mule in the South, to compete with that white man in Iowa sitting under that red umbrella. You are going to buy your corn every time from the individual who can produce it cheapest, no mater what his color; all you want is the cheapest and best corn. My object in emphasizing industrial education is to help give the Negro boy in the South so much brain and skill that he can sit under a red umbrella and raise corn just as that white man does in Iowa; and we have got to do the same kind of a thing for the poor white boy — go and take him from that mule and put him under that umbrella, so as to make the forces of nature in a large degree work for him. When that is down we shall cease to buy our corn, and to compete as we do now in so large a degree with the West and the North. We will free the poor white boy and free the poor black boy in the South at the same time.

I was in Boston some time ago, and I saw a white man washing shirts; and, as usual, this white man was sitting down. You don’t see a white man doing much work unless he is sitting down. But he “gets there” — he gets results, and results are what the world is looking for. When it wants corn and cotton, it does not care whether it is made by a black man standing up or a white man sitting down; all it wants is the best and cheapest corn and cotton. You must put brains and skill into all these common but important occupations if we would hold our own as a race in this country. All this pertains to the material side, and not to the ethical, higher growth of the Negro, you say. I do not overlook or undervalue that side of our development. But show me a race that is living from day to day on the outer edges of the industrial world; show me a race living on the skimmed milk of other people, and I will show you a race that is a football for political parties. The black man, like the white man, must have this industrial, commercial foundation upon which to rest his higher life. The black man in the South is very emotional; but, my friends, it is hard to make a Christian out of a hungry man, whether black or white. I have tried that, but always failed. In proportion as the black man gets into habits of thrift and industry, in the same proportion he improves in his moral and industrial life. Would you think the average black man can feel as much in ten minutes as the white man can in an hour? In our religion we feel more than you do. When the black man gets religion he is expected to shout and jump around. If he does not, we get skeptical, and we say he has the white man’s religion. This emotional side of our nature puts us in awkward circumstances sometimes. Some time ago a good colored woman in some southern city went to the Episcopal church and they gave her a seat in the gallery. When the good preacher got warmed up in his sermon, the old woman got “happy” and got to groaning and singing. One of the officers of the church heard her going on and went to her. “What is the matter?” he asked; “why do you disturb us?” She said: “I am happy; I got religion.”

“Why,” he said, “this is no place to get religion.”

But gradually thruout the South, as we watch the influence of this industrial education as it strikes the rank and file of our people in the corners of the South, it not only changes them into habits of industry, but it is helping them in that moral and religious life. Some time ago I met an old colored man going to camp meeting. I asked: “Where are you going?” “I am going to camp meeting,” he said. “I haven’t been in eight years, and now I am going. I heard you tell us some time ago to buy land and stop mortgaging crops. I followed your advice. I ain’t been to camp-meeting in eight years, but I am going now, sure. I bought fifty acres of land, and I done paid the last dollar on it. I got a house on it with four rooms, all painted, and I [am] going to camp-meeting this year. Do you see this wagon? I done paid the last dollar on it — ain’t no man got a mortgage on it, and the wagon got a right to go to camp-meeting too this year. Do you see these two big mules? They belong to Sam. I paid the last dollar on them, and they got a right to go to camp-meeting. Do you see this bread in the basket? My old woman cooked the bread; I raised it, and the old woman cooked it. We are going to camp meeting, and are going to shout and have a big time. We have food in our stomachs and religion in our hearts.”

Gradually we are changing the moral condition of the colored people thruout the South. We are making progress in the settlement of these problems. The black man is gradually buying land and teaching schools in every part of the South. The Negro is not only getting an education, but is fast converting the white man to believe in the education of the black man thruout this country. And in proportion as we can convince the white men in every part of the South that the education makes black men more useful citizens, in the same proportion will our problem as a race be solved. And I want you to remember that when you hear of crime being committed in the South, this crime is not being committed by the educated black men of the race. It is very seldom, if ever, that anyone has heard of a black man who has been thoroly educated in industrial schools or in colleges committing any of these heinous crimes so often charged up against our race. In a larger degree you must learn to judge the Negro race as you do other races, by the best that the race can produce, and not by the worst. You must judge us by those in the schoolroom, and not by those in the penitentiary; by those who are in the field and in the shop, not by those on the streets in idleness; by those who have bought homes and are taxpayers, not by those in dens of misery and crime; by those who have learned the laws of health and are living, not by those who are breaking the laws of health and are dying out. Keep the searchlights constantly focused upon the weaker elements of any race, and who among them can be called successful people? You judge the English by Gladstone, the Germans by Bismarck, the French by Loubet — by those who have succeeded, not by those who have failed.

We are making progress in another direction, and the Negro is not unappreciative of the opportunity the South gives him in this respect. Go out here about a mile from the center of this city, and I will show you a spectacle that perhaps no other city, in the North or West, can present — the spectacle of the white South giving to the black boy and the black girl an opportunity to work in a cotton factory. In proportion as we get these business opportunities, in the same proportion shall we go forward as a race.

At one time, in a certain part of the South, there was a white man who wanted to cross a river, and he went to a colored man near by and asked him to lend him 3 cents to pay his way across the ferry. The colored man said: “Boss, how much money have you got?” The white man replied: “I haven’t got any today. I am broke and in bad circumstances, and I want to borrow 3 cents to pay my way across the ferry.” “Boss,” said the colored man, “I know you are a white man, and I expect you got some sense than this old ’nigger,’ but I ain’t going to loan you no 3 cents. The man that ain’t got no money is just as well off on one side of the river as on t’other.” Now in reference to our race, I would say that a race that is without bank accounts, or property, or business standing, is just as well off on one side of the river as on the other. Whether we live in the North or the South, we have got to enter into the industries and enterprises of the community in which we live. And in proportion as we do that the whites will respect us more, no matter where we live.

Whenever a black man has $500 to loan there is never any trouble getting a white man to borrow it from him. I never heard of any such thing. A short time ago one of our men at Tuskegee tried to find how many bushels of sweet potatoes he could produce on a single acre of land. He got a yield last year of 266 bushels. The average production in that community before had been forty-nine bushels. When he produced those 266 bushels, you should have seen the white men coming to see how he did that thing. They forgot all about the color of his skin; they did not have any prejudice against those potatoes; they simply knew there was a Negro who by his knowledge of improved methods of agriculture could produce more potatoes than they could. Every white man there was ready to take off his hat to that black man. Put such a black man in every community in the South, and you will find that the race problem will begin to disappear.

In discussing this problem further, I thank God that I have come to a point in the struggle where I can sympathize with the white man as much as I can sympathize with the black man. And I thank God further — and I make a statement here which I have made in our northern cities — that I have grown to the point where I can sympathize with even a southern white man as much as I can with a northern white man. To me “a man is a man for a’ that and a’ that.” And in extending this sympathy I believe as a race, we shall strengthen ourselves at every point; for no race, black or white, can go on cherishing hatred or ill-will toward another race without itself being narrowed and drawn down in everything that builds character and manhood and womanhood. I propose that no race shall drag down and narrow my soul by making me hate it. I propose that the Negro, if possible, shall be bigger in his sympathies than even the white man, and if the white man in any part this country would hate us, let us love him; if he would treat us cruelly let us extend to him the hand of mercy; if he would push us down, let us help to push him up.

No race has ever made such immense progress, under similar conditions, as the black race of this country. You must not, however, measure us by the distance we have traveled so much as by the obstacles we have overcome in traveling that distance.

In conclusion, my friends of the white race, this problem concerns nearly ten millions of my people and sixty millions of yours. We rise as you rise, fall as you fall. Where we are strong you are strong. There is no power that can separate our destiny. No member of your race in any part of this country can harm the weakest member of mine without the proudest and bluest blood in your civilization being degraded. I believe the time has come in the history of this problem when the culture, the education, the refinement of the white South is going to take hold and help life the black man up as it has never done before. No race can oppress or neglect a weaker race without that race itself being degraded and injured. No strong race can help a weaker race without the strong race being made stronger. Oppression degrades, assistance elevates. But you as white people and we as black people must remember that mere material, visible accumulation alone will not solve our problem, and that education of the white people and of the black people will be a failure unless we keep constantly before us the fact that the final aim of all education, whether industrial or academic, must be that influence which softens the heart, and brings to it a spirit of kindness and generosity ; that influence which makes us seek the elevation of all men, regardless of race or color. The South will prosper in proportion as with development in agriculture, in mines, in domestic arts, in manufacture there goes that education which brings respect for law, which broadens the heart, sweetens the nature, and makes us feel that we are our “brother’s keeper,” whether that brother was born in England, Italy, Africa, or the Islands of the Sea.

  1. 1. In 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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