Notes on "Booker T. Washington and the Politics of Accommodation" by Louis Harlan

1880-90: The Nadir:

  • sharecropping system for rural tenant farmers
  • only menial jobs available  in cities for unskilled workers
  • black workers shunned by labor unions
  • systematic legal and political disenfranchisement and segregation enforced throughout the South
  • system enforced by mob violence: lynching and race riots

Black Leadership pursues a policy of accommodation:

  • toleration of discrimination and segregation
  • focus instead on self-help to secure an education and achieve economic education
  • Earn respect of whites, gain philanthropic support (white money), establish economic independence, and only then will the whites consider civil rights.

Booker Washington: "The Wizard of Tuskegee"

  • b. 1856 in slavery on a West Virginia farm
  • came to believe that reconstruction failed because it had emphasized civil and political rights rather than economic development and self-determination
  • educated at Hampton Institute, VA.
  • worked as a high school teacher and then studied post grad at a Baptist Seminary
  • founds Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (1881)

Atlanta Compromise Address (1895); Up From Slavery (1901)

  • social peace is essential to blacks as they climb on their own to the middle class
  • declares that militant agitation for social rights is 'folly'
  • relationship of blacks and whites should be as separate as the fingers on a hand which when the situation is right, can act together as a unit.
  • He urges whites to become the business partners of blacks in all projects essential to mutual progress
  • He urges blacks to express their solidarity and come to each others' mutual aid to engage in the construction of institutions for blacks alone: schools, business associations

Tuskegee Institute (The Tuskegee Machine)

  • an all black school with an all black faculty
  • a trade school: educating farmers and craftsmen to participate in the sharecropping economic system and eventually save enough to achieve independence
  • a model community: teaching middle class manners and values, buying up local farmland to sell to graduates at reduced interest rates
  • Washington built a constituency of farmers, artisans, teachers and small businessmen

Washington as National Political Boss

  • alliance with W. Thomas Fortune, NY publisher
  • founds African-American Council and National Negro Business League
  • courts white philanthropists, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, to contribute to his own projects
  • eventually, Washington's recommendations would be essential to other black organizations receiving philanthropic dollars
  • becomes chief black advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and achieves influence in recommending his people for federal jobs (even so, he never was able to obtain Presidential support for a federal anti-lynching law)
  • media influence: Washington's financial support enabled him to influence and moderate the message of many black newspapers and periodicals

Challengers to Washington's Power and Philosophy:

W. Monroe Trotter, ed. Boston Guardian
confronts Washington in 1903 "The Boston Riot", interrupting a Washington speect in a local church and demanding that he explain why he refused to fight for federal anti-lynching legislation or to end segregation on public transportation

WEB DuBois

Harvard Phd.; leading black intellectual, inaugurates the Niagara Movement to promote black agitation for civil and political rights, job opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and human rights. He accuses Washington of being a puppet controlled by whites and their philanthropy. He argues that Washington's brand of leadership stifled black intellectuals (the Talented Tenth) and enhanced instead the centrality of acquisitive business types.

He accused Washington of having traded black freedom for money and supplying the education for a new form of slavery: segregations and share cropping.


Washington's Response:

  • Washington was an effective politician who could draw on support from a much larger constituency than DuBois' base of highly educated white teachers and lawyers.
  • Washington's support: black businessmen, alliances in white world, common touch with masses, even alliances with members of the black intellectual elite
  • Washington acknowledged that his leadership depended on white support, but he argued that exploiting the divisions among whites was the only way to advance the black cause in an age of such racial polarization.

Washington's pragmatic conservatism:

  • He allied himself with the people who had money: planters, coal barons, railroad tycoons, against the Populists and small farmers who held the most racist attitudes despite their common economic interests with blacks.
  • He regarded organized labor as an enemy because unions excluded blacks.
  • He regarded recent immigrants as enemy because they competed for jobs with blacks.
  • He regarded black sharecroppers as unqualified to vote due to lack of  education and economic dependence. He supported literacy tests and property tests.

Washington's Goals:

  • Much the same as other more radical black leaders: anti-lynching legislation, anti-segregation in public transportation, pro-franchise for black property owners, improved educational opportunities.
  • However, instead of confronting white power in public, he preferred to work the back channels to pressure white officials for change.

Washington's Accomplishments

  • His support for industrial education programs fit the predominantly rural, Southern population he served.
  • He offered the masses education and a self-help philosophy which enabled those on the bottom of the ladder to achieve dignity
  • His support for small business associations created a new generation of black entrepreneurs vested in black solidarity, serving black customers: bankers, insurance salesmen, undertakers, barbers.
  • His effective use of centrist, coalition politics demonstrated that a black leader could achieve influence in white circles.


  • Washington never got whites to give blacks genuine business opportunities.
  • He never got whites to oppose disenfranchisement or to support equal educational opportunity.
  • Black businessmen only found real support among other blacks.