Caption: Statue of Booker T. Washington outside the WV state capitol building.
The theme for this week's Goat Rope is Black History and its many intersections with El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.
Yesterday's post was about John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and the formation of unionist West Virginia during the Civil War.
As John Alexander Williams wrote in his classic West Virginia: A History,
Few of the 25,000 black people who found themselves living in West Virginia after the Civil War are likely to have wept for the loss of the Old Dominion. What was Virginia irridenta for some of their former masters became a haven of freedom for ex-slaves. Some blacks served as spies or couriers for Union troops operating in the Shenandoah region; others simply followed the soldiers northward to freedom. More than one Valley white family was shocked by the departure of "faithful old family retainers" who left at the first good opportunity. Julia Davis tells the story of a husband and wife who belonged to Miss Davis's grandmother; they took off once looking for Yankee protection at Harpers Ferry but became lost and had to return. On the next opportunity, they took off again. This time they appropriated a horse and carriage from their mistress--and they made it. Farther south, a Union soldier noticed a 75-year-old black woman accompanying the army as it retreated across Gauley Mountain after the Lynchburg Raid of 1864. Over terrain so rugged and barren of food that it reduced war-hardened men to tears of frustration, she was "striding along on foot with wonderful endurance and zeal...walking for freedom."
One person who made that long walk was young Booker T. Washington, who traveled with his mother and brother from the plantation where they had been enslaved in Franklin County Virginia. The journey was long and hard and the children made most of it on foot.
Washington's stepfather had previously escaped by following the Union army and was working at a salt furnace in Malden, Kanawha County. Conditions were harsh, but he was able to begin his education in a one-room school.
In his Up From Slavery, Washington describes the excitement and novelty of a world of education being opened up to a people who had been denied it for centuries:
This experience of a whole race beginning to go to school for the first time, presents one of the most interesting studies that has ever occurred in connection with the development of any race. Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for an education. As I have stated, it was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn. As fast as any kind of teachers could be secured, not only were day-schools filled, but night-schools as well. The great ambition of the older people was to try to learn to read the Bible before they died. With this end in view, men and women who were fifty or seventy-five years old would often be found in the night-school. Sunday-schools were formed soon after freedom, but the principal book studied in the Sunday-school was the spelling-book. Day-school, night-school, Sunday-school, were always crowded, and often many had to be turned away for want of room.
Eventually, Washington studied at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, returning to West Virginia to teach. Later, when he taught at Hampton, he returned during breaks to work in the mines. Washington left West Virginia in 1881 and opened a school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama.
According to Joseph Bundy, writing in the West Virginia Encyclopedia,
The school had a humble beginning, with 37 students meeting in Butler Chapel African American Methodist Episcopal Zion, a log structure with an adjoining shanty. At the close of the May 1914 term, Principal Washington's last full year as the head of the school, his Tuskegee Institute owned 110 buildings, 2,110 acres of land and more than 350 head of livestock; hundreds of wagons, carriages, farm implements, and other equipment valued at nearly $1.5 million; and a permanent endowment fund worth more than $2 million.
Washington drew criticism from W.E.B. DuBois and others for not challenging racial inequality--although it was a lot easier to do this in New England than Alabama. His efforts no doubt improved conditions and life chances for many African Americans in the deep South.
He died on the Tuskegee campus in 1915.
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GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED