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Tuskegee’s Civilizing Mission | AAIHS


Tuskegee’s Civilizing Mission | AAIHS

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute; Exhibition of the girls’ physical culture class, 1922 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

From his academic career at the Hampton Institute (1872-1875) in Virginia until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington preached that technical education was more than a tool to build character—it was a solution to uplift Black peoples around the globe. He laid down his message in a speech delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 in which he told the African Americans in attendance–while also speaking more broadly to Black people everywhere–to “Cast down your buckets . . . in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions.”  This essay looks at how Tuskegee educators and supporters promoted Booker T. Washington’s Hampton-Tuskegee model of education in Africa during the age of American and European imperialism from the Berlin Conference of 1884 until the opening of the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata, Liberia, in 1929. The push for a Tuskegee Institute in Liberia indicated a coordinated diasporic effort to mobilize resources and institutionalize Black uplift. In the current age of Black Lives Matter, understanding the diasporic history of Black peoples is important to understanding how African Americans and Africans connect with each other in an era of continued discrimination and exploitation. 

Booker T. Washington has become one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in Black history. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois critically called Washington’s Atlanta speech the “Atlanta Compromise.” Washington’s critics, including Du Bois, labeled him an accommodationist because of his apparent acquiescence to white society and imperial powers, who viewed Washington’s speech as justification for the subordination of colonial peoples. But looking deeper, Washington envisioned the Hampton-Tuskegee method as a solution to elevating the status of African peoples and building diasporic connections through education and struggle. The attitudes of Tuskegee students who went on…

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