Once Upon a Time

A great black educator visits Quincy

Booker T. Washington writes in his office at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., in this undated photo. | Photo courtesy of the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress
By HEATHER BANGERT
Posted: Sep. 10, 2017 12:05 am Updated: Sep. 10, 2017 12:36 am

On a Saturday evening in late January 1895, Booker Taliaferro Washington arrived in Quincy. Born a slave in Virginia in 1856, he was then one of the nation's most prominent black leaders three decades after the Civil War, as well as a leading voice for former slaves and their descendants. He was president and co-founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881, an institution built almost entirely by its students, and funded by wealthy white Southerners, as well as donations from average local citizens, white and black.

The next morning at the Congregational church, the Rev. Samuel H. Dana introduced Washington to the Sunday congregation. Seasonal evergreens dangled from the orchestra stand's railing as he began his address before the filled sanctuary.

The Quincy Daily Journal reported that he was "as welcome as he would have been in the fair southland." Dana had met Washington in Magnolia, Ala., in the summer of 1894, and Washington's intelligence and drive thoroughly impressed him. As a graduate of Illinois College in Jacksonville, Dana had studied abolitionist principles and the extreme struggle to end slavery in the U.S. Dana described Washington as an "intensely practical man."

Washington opened by stating that the Tuskegee Institute was in a region known as the "black belt" of the South, where most residents were either former slaves or recent descendants. It now housed over 750 students representing 19 states, and had 62 officers and teachers.

Washington continued explaining campus life at Tuskegee. The institution was nondenominational, but Christian values were emphasized. The industrial idea was taught with religion and education simultaneously. The students cultivated 500 acres of land and earned money in their labors. They studied chemistry, botany, geology and more biological studies on those acres. Young men built a 3 story brick building, making the bricks and sawing the lumber themselves. The women were not idle, doing laundry and other chores. The goal was to send these young adults back into communities possessing a "spirit of industry."

Tuskegee students were also taught honesty and truthfulness. If a student neglected to bring a tool inside after a day's work, he or she was reprimanded in front of the entire class the next morning. The lesson meant that the tool was stolen from the whole institution, and the student would be careful not to leave it there anymore. Shaming the student was a form of discipline.

Washington also discussed the crop lien system that was customary in the South, as a way to finance planting crops or other expenses. That mortgage system was hurting new farmers, and he stated: "Three-fourths of the black people and many of the poor white people are in debt because of the mortgage system." After the Civil War most black Americans had no cash to live on, and if they had to buy something they would mortgage the cotton or corn crop they expected to harvest. Washington explained that people didn't know how to get out from under these mortgages, and he stressed economic progress as the main means of elevating former slaves and their descendants.

He explained that public schools in Alabama did not run longer than 3 months in a year and were mostly held in "wrecks of log cabins." Descendants of slaves and poor white Alabamans had little chance for education in the decades after the Civil War.

"But as the people are becoming educated, and as young men and women go out from these schools like Tuskegee and teach them, a complete revolution is made," said Washington.

He told the church audience that the greatest wrong that slavery ever did to blacks was that it took away their self-dependence. He said that for 250 years the black man was dependent upon someone, and it was hard to get out of that rut. In Washington's words, it was impossible. He also firmly expressed that the Southern people did not need charity, but they did need Christian teachers. He said you cannot expect great change unless industrial life is changed.

Washington consistently stated in all of his addresses that business, hard work and economic freedom will mend rifts between white and black Americans over the slavery issue.

He stressed that economic rights would be most important in the advancement of black Americans, and he believed that political power and influence should be secondary. He called for progress through education and entrepreneurship.

Washington returned for the evening service to an even larger crowd. He again encouraged thrift and acquiring property. "When one looks into the face of an honest, hardworking black man, who owns nothing, one cannot help seeing the terrible degradation which was caused by slavery, and slavery alone in the race. The stamp is there, but it will be erased."

Dana then spoke to the congregation briefly, and they closed in singing "My Country Tis of Thee."

After his evening talk at the Congregational church, he visited the Eighth and Elm Street Baptist Church, and spoke to over 400 Quincyans of African ancestry, some of whom had also personally known slavery. Church members included former slave Cynthia Coger, her daughter Emma, and Civil War veterans, among others.

Later that year in September 1895, Washington gave his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech to a mainly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition. His words are still regarded as one of the most influential speeches of the post-Civil War era, and he addressed the economic conditions and business relations of blacks and whites in the South. The next year Washington finished his first publication called "Daily Resolves," a pamphlet that helped students stay focused on helping others. He went on to write over a dozen more books, including "Up From Slavery," an autobiography that is still studied today.

Heather Bangert is involved with several local history projects. She is a member of Friends of the Log Cabins, has given tours at Woodland Cemetery and John Wood Mansion, and is an archaeological field/lab technician.

Sources:

"Statesman of His Race" Quincy Daily Journal, Jan. 17, 1895.

"Addresses By a Statesman" Quincy Daily Journal, Jan. 22, 1895.

"Booker T. Washington's Views" Quincy Daily Journal, Jan. 21, 1895.

"A Wonderful Work" Quincy Daily Herald, Jan. 17, 1895.

Quincy Daily Whig, Jan. 21, 1895.

Washington, Booker T. "Up From Slavery: An Autobiography." New York City: Doubleday, 1901.

Washington, Booker T. "The Future of the American Negro." Boston: Maynard Press, 1899.