When Alabama senator W.F. Foster needed a teacher to found a school for blacks in Macon County, he contacted the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia to find one. He got Booker T. Washington out of the exchange, welcoming him to rural Tuskegee with a dilapidated shanty, little property, and even less funding. Washington had been so determined to attend Hampton that he hitchhiked, walked, and worked his way 300 miles to do it, and a new challenge did not faze him. He took on the project without hesitation and in 1881 founded the school as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
Most of the Institute’s first students were adults seeking the skills to get by in the post-Civil War South, and Washington provided basic reading and writing courses as well as instruction in farming, animal husbandry, blacksmithing, and other practical skills. He emphasized industriousness and cleanliness as much as education, believing blacks had to work hard to pull themselves out of poverty. Washington’s views became widespread, popular with blacks because of his leadership and emphasis on education, popular with whites because of his acceptance of black subordination. He rose to become a White House dinner guest during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and served as an adviser to him and to his successor, William H. Taft.
For a couple of decades Washington’s philosophy hummed along like one of the sewing machines he taught his students to use. But one of his admirers, a teacher himself, was developing a counterargument that would set the civil rights stage for the twentieth century. In 1903, William Edward Burghardt DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk, detailing his teaching experience in a rural school district, the history of black culture in the U.S., and the effect of emancipation on America’s black population. He emphasized public protests as the way to gaining equal rights, believing Washington’s pacifism would never help blacks rise out of the oppression they had endured as slaves.
Raised in a Massachusetts community that operated according to democratic principles, DuBois did not experience racial divide until he attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. After receiving his diploma in 1888 he traveled north to Harvard, where he earned three degrees: a B.A. in philosophy, an M.A. in history, and a Ph.D. in history. In 1911, the NAACP emerged out of DuBois’s own short-lived Niagara Movement, and he served as the association’s Director of Publicity and Research and editor of its official journal, The Crisis. Twenty-four years later, he left the NAACP because he advocated segregation as a tool for black advancement and unity and the association refused to support him.
Neither Washington nor DuBois held the solution to the immense problem of American race relations, but a descendant of their tradition, Martin Luther King, Jr., continued the fight for civil rights on their behalf. The institutions the two educators created, however, still stand as monuments to their memories and philosophies. The NAACP lives on as the largest civil rights organization in the United States, and the Tuskegee Institute thrives at its original site as Tuskegee University.