Chapter 4: Booker T. Washington’s Reclamation of Work

[Read up on Booker T. Washington here]

What really stood out about rural Alabama were the naked kids. And they were not just little kids—they were boys of thirteen and fourteen running around naked. The issue was less their nudity than that they “seemed not to mind their condition in the least.” Not all of them were naked, but those with clothing had garments “so black and greasy that it did not resemble cloth.” Clothed or not, they were poor and uneducated. Yet they understood their predicament and were “desirous of improving.”

That was Booker T. Washington’s observation of the Alabama countryside shortly after moving there in 1881. He had been there only a month when he sent these observations to the Southern Workman, the monthly publication of the Hampton Institute in Virginia. A former student and teacher at Hampton, Washington had contributed regularly to the publication, and he was now ready to report on the prospects of opening a Hampton-like institution in rural Alabama. The prospects were strong, he wrote to readers of the Southern Workman, because the people of Alabama so desperately wanted to improve. To help them improve, Washington put his new institution “on a labor basis, so that earnest students can help themselves and at the same time learn the true dignity of labor.” Learning the dignity of labor was necessary, he believed, because labor had been degraded and forced upon African Americans during their enslavement. Tuskegee, a school that would alter the direction of black higher education for decades to come, would remake labor as something empowering, something that put individuals, communities, and the race on solid ground as the nineteenth century lurched to a close.

Washington’s letter to the Southern Workman, written in July 1881, offered one of the earliest articulations of an idea that would form the cornerstone of his efforts at racial uplift. Not only would he build Tuskegee on the “dignity of labor,” but he would also preach about it to audiences across the country, from early in his career until the year of his death. In 1882, for instance, at a meeting of teachers in Selma, Alabama, he spoke of instructing students on “the dignity of labor” so they could adjust to “the real business of life.” In 1915, the year he passed away, he insisted that race relations in the South were ultimately “a labor problem” and that to combat the problem, “people must be taught a love for labor, must be taught the dignity of labor and at the same time given proper methods in the direction of skill.”

Washington did not coin the phrase “the dignity of labor”; it was a staple of nineteenth-century public discourse, especially in industrial contexts. But he put the phrase to strategic use for racial politics, setting it to work in different ways for different audiences—black and white alike. “The dignity of labor” attracted wealthy northern philanthropists by picturing a southern workforce that shared the values of industriousness and self-help that they affirmed. It suggested to southern whites that the masses of African Americans in their midst would remain menial laborers, supposedly serving the interests of the white establishment. To African Americans, however, particularly those in the rural South, the “dignity of labor” served as a rallying cry, an idea around which they could gather to take control of their lives. Washington called on African Americans to work, and to work hard, but also to work intelligently and efficiently. Work would help them accumulate the land, wealth, and resources strong black communities needed.

In championing the dignity of labor throughout his career, Washington deployed a flexible and disruptive rhetoric of work, which proceeded along two main fronts. First, he spoke extensively about work in his public address, and he did so in a way that empowered African Americans in the rural South as intellectual agents. Second, he created an institution—the Tuskegee Institute—that taught work as, among other things, a rhetorical process. To Washington, work was rhetorical because it communicated, influenced, and persuaded as effectively as words. When African Americans in the rural South worked with dignity, they could persuade European Americans of their strength and value. Yet working with dignity was not just about shaping the perceptions of whites; it was also about empowering blacks to live the lives they wanted, to prosper and advance themselves, their communities, and future generations. Washington relied on this double movement—changing white perceptions and empowering black communities—to combat the racist status quo that had long exploited, marginalized, and dehumanized African Americans.

The purpose of this chapter is to trace the rhetoric of work throughout Washington’s career and to show how he extended intellectual populism into the rural South. Political populism had deep roots in the South, even among such African American groups as the Colored Farmer’s Alliance. Yet Washington’s discourse and leadership offer a clear window into how the appeals of intellectual populism could transform the meaning of work for generations of former slaves and their descendants. When Washington discussed work, he positioned it as a form of inquiry, elevating it into an intellectual practice that contributed to the advancement of knowledge, truth, right, wrong, good, bad, and more. In that way, his intellectual populism was the converse of Thomas Davidson’s. Davidson pushed inquiry down into a form of labor continuous with what members of the Breadwinners’ College already knew. Washington pushed labor up into a form of inquiry designed to elevate African Americans in the rural South. Like the other rhetors discussed in this book, Washington deployed the basic appeals of the populist intellectual tradition. But in his case, the appeals proceeded through a rhetoric of work suited to the project of resisting white domination. Elevating work to a form of intellectual practice enabled Washington to resist white domination through a language that seemed unobjectionable to white America. He called on African Americans to be workers— something whites of the North and South could support. But he called on them to be more than mere workers—an idea behind which African Americans could rally.