The African-American Educational Experience: Exposing the False Assumptions of Progressive-Era School Reform, Part I

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 12, 2021

Progressive-Era education reformers tended to be insensitive to the fact that most Americans viewed formal education and societal advancement primarily in connection with political equality and the ability of all individuals to reach their potential. A good illustration of this problem can be seen in Booker T. Washington’s remarks on the education of African-Americans in the first years of the twentieth century, a period which marked the mid-point of the Progressive-Era reforms and related debates.

Booker’s argument was that in the post-Civil War South, recently emancipated men and women possessed most of the “industrial” and “business” skills. “Through all those years the Southern white man did business with the Negro in a way that no one else has done business with him,” Booker said. “In most cases if a Southern white man wanted a house built he consulted a Negro mechanic about the plan and about the actual building of the structure.” Emphasizing that he was in no way “apologiz[ing] for the curse of slavery,” he made the startling claim that “in a certain way every slave plantation in the South was an industrial school,” constantly training “young colored men and women...not only as farmers but as carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laundresses, sewing women and housekeepers.”[1]

That there is obvious truth in this assertion presented the main problem for “industrial education” proponents--not even so much in the sense that skilled labor was associated with political and social oppression as in the sense that there was nothing new about Americans acquiring such skills, and that they certainly didn’t need specially-trained experts and futuristic plans to do so.[2] As Washington pointed out, “this training was crude, and was given for selfish purposes,” yet it “left the Negro at the close of the war in possession of nearly all the common and skilled labor in the South.”[3]

The real question, Washington insisted, was why there was a perceived shortage of such skills in 1903. He argued that until the 1880s, African-Americans (then still residing primarily in the South), who embraced the chance for a formal education and brighter future, studied literature, math, and science, and other subjects that inclined them to urban occupations:

“As a generation began to pass, those who had been trained as mechanics in slavery began to disappear by death, and gradually it began to be realized that there were few to take their places. There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming. For this reason they had no interest in farming and did not return to it. And yet eighty-five cent of the Negro population of the Southern states lives and for a considerable time will continue to live in the country districts...”[4]

This was essentially the same complaint made about white Americans during the Progressive era, only focused on skilled laborers instead of farmers, given the limited opportunities that African-Americans had to own their own land.

Americans of all races continued to pursue a classical education designed for the political system that Progressives were in the process of dismantling. Though most on both sides seemed oblivious to the problem, many of their fundamental objectives were at odds. The causes of pushback were often misdiagnosed by reformers. While Washington was more perceptive than most, he tended to avoid addressing the concerns he described head-on.

“Some years ago, when we decided to make tailoring a part of our training at the Tuskegee Institute, I was amazed to find that it was almost impossible to find in the whole country an educated colored man who could teach the making of clothing. We could find numbers of them who could teach astronomy, theology, Latin or grammar, but almost none who could instruct in the making of clothing, something that has to be used by every one of us every day in the year.”[5]

The sights that “discouraged” Washington would hardly produce the same effect on the modern reader, even when his general point about lacking practical skills is grasped:

“How often have I been discouraged as I have gone through the South, and into the homes of the people of my race, and have found women who could converse intelligently upon abstruse subjects, and yet could not tell how to improve the condition of the poorly cooked and still more poorly served bread and meat which they and their families were eating three times a day. It is discouraging to find a girl who can tell you the geographical location of any country on the globe and who does not know where to place the dishes upon a common dinner table. It is discouraging to find a woman who knows much about theoretical chemistry, and who cannot properly wash and iron a shirt.”[6]

Indeed, the natural response of the modern reader is probably, why not both? The education policy thinking of the time tended towards dichotomies and contrasts, but Washington clarified that he had no intention to force a choice. He just believed that a practical, concrete focus was the proper place to start, and would bring most of the opportunities to the African-American community in the near future, as skillful handling of the “every-day practical things of life,” was always in demand, and always “permitted” within one’s own community. Still, Washington would “set no limits to the attainments of the Negro in arts, in letters or statesmanship.” He wanted to see African-Americans “enter the all-powerful business and commercial world.” He simply believed that “the surest way to reach those ends is by laying the foundation in the little things of life that lie immediately about one’s door.”[7]

But it is telling that when he introduced industrial education concepts at Tuskegee, "and the idea got spread among the people of my race that the students who came to the Tuskegee school were to be taught industries in connection with their academic studies, were, in other words, to be taught to work,” he “received a great many verbal messages and letters from parents informing me that they wanted their children taught books, but not how to work.” The “protest” went on for “three or four years,” but by 1903, he could say that “it has been several years since we have had a single protest from parents against the teaching of industries,” because they had woken up to their actual needs.[8] 

But even as a practical matter, slave plantations were not “industrial schools.” They were slave plantations, and it follows logically that they trained slaves in the skills necessary to a plantation-centric society. There was no reason to presume that a school system for free Americans had to serve this function, no matter what other social and economic arrangements were in place.W. E. B. Du Bois, the first black man to be awarded a Ph. D. from Harvard University, argued that Tuskegee’s approach was anachronistic, denying its students “the intellectual training and professional skills that a twentieth-century economy demanded and therefore [denying them a] chance at true equality,” but other remarks by Du Bois show that it was really more of a functional than an economic matter. In 1902, he had “pointed out that the range of ‘callings’ was so great that, even if trade schools were to be made much more efficient, they could not serve their intended purpose.” Because “the factory system” was so specialized, apprentices could only master the necessary skills by working in a particular factory.[9] In the same way that neither factories nor plantations were designed to provide a general education for American citizens, even if they passed on practical skills and experience, public schools were simply not designed to serve the functions of slave plantations or factories, even when it came to training!

However, Progressive-Era reformers were attracted to mechanistic ideologies that obscured the mismatch between the chosen means and desired ends. Part II, which discusses this, is coming soon.

1. Washington, Booker T. (1903). Industrial Education for the Negro. Essay, October 1, 1903. From Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/industrial-education-for-the-negro/.

The next line reads: “The industries that gave the South its power, prominence and wealth prior to the Civil War were mainly the raising of cotton, sugar cane, rice and tobacco. Before the way could be prepared for the proper growing and marketing of these crops forests had to be cleared, houses to be built, public roads and railroads constructed. In all these works the Negro did most of the heavy work. In the planting, cultivating and marketing of the crops not only was the Negro the chief dependence, but in the manufacture of tobacco he became a skilled and proficient workman, and in this, up to the present time, in the South, holds the lead in the large tobacco manufactories.

2. Progressive-Era Reformers, including Washington, often had ideological theories that caused them to reject this conclusion. These ideologies were rare outside of college-educated circles, however. This excerpt from one of his speeches gets at this disconnect:

“...Many seem to think that industrial education is meant to make the Negro work as he worked in the days of slavery. This is far from my conception of industrial education. If this training is worth anything to the Negro, it consists in teaching him how not to work, but how to make the forces of nature–air, steam, water, horse-power and electricity–work for him. If it has any value it is in lifting labor up out of toil and drudgery into the plane of the dignified and the beautiful. The Negro in the South works and works hard; but too often his ignorance and lack of skill causes him to do his work in the most costly and shiftless manner, and this keeps him near the bottom of the ladder in the economic world.”

3. Washington, Booker T. (1903). Industrial Education for the Negro. Essay, October 1, 1903. From Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/industrial-education-for-the-negro/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid. Being a tailor was a respectable male profession at the time; President Andrew Johnson was trained as a tailor.

6. Ibid. Washington’s remarks obviously reveal a belief that men and women have different social, economic, and educational roles, but that is beyond the scope of this piece.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Kliebard, Herbert M. (1987) The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.