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Sacred FireThe history of the African in America has often been personalized or embodied within one individual, one spokes-person who represented the sentiments of the moment. In the South of the 1890s, Booker T. Washington stood as the often controversial personification of the aspirations of the black masses. The Civil War had ended, casting an uneducated black mass adrift or, equally tenuous, creating a class of sharecroppers still dependent on the whims of their former owners. Black Reconstruction, for all its outward trimming, had failed to deliver its promised economic and political empowerment. While an embittered and despairing black population sought solace and redemption, a white citizenry systematically institutionalized racism.
From this Armageddon rose this Moses, Booker Taliaferro Washington, who was born in 1856 in Virginia, of a slave mother and a white father he never knew. But he gave no indication in his autobiography of the pain this almost certainly caused him: "I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations. But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time." After Emancipation, Washington began to dream of getting an education and resolved to go to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. When he arrived, he was allowed to work as the school's janitor in return for his board and part of his tuition. After graduating from Hampton, Washington was selected to head a new school for blacks at Tuskegee, Alabama, where he taught the virtues of "patience, thrift, good manners and high morals" as the keys to empowerment.
An unabashed self-promoter (Tuskegee was dependent upon the largesse of its white benefactors) and advocate of accommodation, Washington's "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" and "be patient and prove yourself first" philosophy was simultaneously acclaimed by the masses, who prescribed to self-reliance, and condemned by the black intelligentsia, who demanded a greater and immediate inclusion in the social, political, and economic fabric of this emerging nation. Washington's philosophy struck a chord that played like a symphony within the racial politics of the times. It gave a glimmer of hope to the black masses; it created for whites a much-needed locus for their veneer of social concern—funds flooded into Tuskegee Institute; and finally, the initiatives of the black intelligentsia, led by W. E. B. Du Bois, were, for the moment, neutralized.
Washington "believed that the story of his life was a typical American success story," and he redefined "success" to make it so: "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in his life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed." His powerfully simple philosophy that self-help is the key to overcoming obstacles of racism and poverty has resonated among African Americans of all political stripes, from Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan.