“Denton is absolutely on target in her assertion that Washington was the pioneer of adult education in the worldwide community.”–Leo McGee, Tennessee Technological University
“Men grow strong in proportion as they reach down to help others up.”–Booker T. Washington, 1906
Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington overcame staggering obstacles to lead emancipated blacks into a quiet revolution against illiteracy and economic dependence. Virginia Denton establishes his stature as an agent for social change through adult education, focusing particularly on Washington’s work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he founded and led as principal from 1881 until his death in 1915.
Washington formed his early vision of the world at home in Hale’s Ford, Virginia, an isolated rural crossroads where conditions were bleak for both blacks and whites, and at Hampton Institute in Hampton, West Virginia, where the principal, General Chapman Armstrong, became his most significant white mentor. Imbued with Armstrong’s model of “head-hands-heart” education, Washington believed that to compete for justice, people must be trained and their training must be determined by the job market. He refined this idea at Tuskegee, pioneering national and international programs in agriculture, industry, education, health, housing, and politics. Placing high value on the “uncommon good sense” of the older population, his new movement extended education to masses of rural adults, bringing the school to them when they could not come to Tuskegee.
To Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who donated thousands of dollars to Tuskegee in 1903, Washington was a “modern Moses who leads and lifts his race through education.” Carnegie predicted that historians would remember two Washingtons, one white and one black, both fathers of their people. Today, however, scholars are more likely to study Washington’s contemporary, W.E.B. Du Bois, and to view Washington as an “Uncle Tom” accommodationist. Denton revises this assessment, showing that Washington’s grass roots concept of social change broke the bonds of illiteracy and peonage that prevailed during Reconstruction. Calling Washington a “prophet of the possible,” she describes him as a man unencumbered by doubt, bitterness, or apology, who viewed the past as a stepping-stone to achievement and the present as his challenge.
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