Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series by Larry L. Rowe on the history of slavery and the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley before the Civil War, and Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes after the war.
The legacy of Booker T. Washington in Malden is the black middle class rising up from slavery.
Young Booker observed his heroes building a black middle class. They were people of honor and vision, committed at all costs to improving the lives of their children and grandchildren.
Those heroes were vital to young Booker’s adult career path and goals. They were centered in the African Zion Baptist Church. It was unique in its history and its legacy as the state’s first black Baptist church and second school for freed people. It was formed independently before the Civil War by slaves for slaves, and it was solely controlled by slaves.
The commitment to duty that young Booker observed in his boyhood heroes took him south in 1881 to Tuskegee, Alabama. His bond to public service in the South put him there during dark times of violence and terror. Local citizens wanted to start a school in Tuskegee like his acclaimed alma mater, Hampton Institute. He was 25 and had to convince them he was up to the task. He was.
His Alabama school became the leading black institution in the nation and it would make him a national celebrity and black leader. The school would also limit his role for social change to a slow and peaceful buildup to a new social order, while accommodating the dangerous white power elite of the South.
The idea of white superiority survived in America for three-and-a-half centuries. It survived the Revolutionary War despite the best ideas of the Founding Fathers for equality, freedom and social justice. It survived Virginia’s second rebellion — the Civil War. The idea won against Reconstruction ideas of equality and due process of law. It then created a century of separation of the races.
The United States Supreme Court protected the idea of white superiority by allowing private businesses to discriminate in public accommodations. Discriminatory state action was sanctioned so long as it met the requirements of the judicial doctrine of “Separate but Equal,” which was a contrived legal doctrine needed to support white supremacy. The Supreme Court’s blessing for white supremacy let bloom Jim Crow social codes across the South, spreading as fast as wildflowers in spring, all enforced with violence, terror and separation.
Booker T. Washington took the national stage in 1895. He accepted the status quo of Jim Crow.
The majority idea of white superiority survived Booker T. Washington’s best attempts to overcome it publicly by proving the worth of African Americans by his example and his work for education and economic opportunity. Unknown to the public, he worked secretly to crush the idea of separation and racial superiority by financing lawsuits to challenge segregation laws around the country.
The lost glory of the Old South became the dominant theme of American culture in the first half of the 20th century, empowering the Ku Klux Klan to push for extreme prejudice against blacks, immigrants, Catholics and other minorities. Motion pictures romanticized the Old South, depicting slaves as happy servants living in luxurious homes until the Yankees attacked and “ruined” the lives of their slaver families.
But finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the idea that “separate” could ever be “equal.” Its order for integration of public schools started many attacks on the fortress of racism and segregation.
A decade later, civil rights laws outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and voting rights whether by state or business action.
The idea of white superiority was ultimately dethroned by professional journalists who could report the horror of race violence in the South clearly and fully in print and in film and photographs. Television reports on marches and protests carried race terror into the living rooms of most American families. Viewers were shocked and many sympathized with the people they saw to be regular parents and students being attacked because they wanted to vote and attend decent schools.
The inconsistencies of white supremacy and the nation’s best ideas were fully displayed night after night. The virulent racism seen on television knocked white supremacy to its knees, and it could not rise up because children and adults were asking questions about fairness and what it meant to be in a country that seeks to lead the world with its best ideas of freedom, equality and social justice. The personal connection to the truth of those ideas ended domination of the idea of white superiority in public institutions, finally after three-and-a-half centuries. The idea of a racist-separated society was overthrown in one generation.
The American dream in the 20th century expanded to include more and more people, especially immigrant minorities. But it took many generations to end the footnoted exceptions to the American dream which were applied to African Americans. Just over a decade ago, the parents of black children could not, with any confidence, encourage their children in the American dream, because the ultimate, or last symbolic success for the American dream is to be president of the United States.
Then in 2008, the universal exceptions to the American dream were swept away with the election of Barack Hussein Obama. He was an African American with a heritage and names that came directly from Africa. The election required the work, unity and resolve of a strong black middle class — the legacy of a once small boy in Malden, West Virginia, who named himself Booker T. Washington.
African Americans are today one of the world’s largest population groups, with more than 70 million people. Many young African Americans today have a sense of entitlement not known in prior generations as they see their lives and the lives of their peers begin to bloom with their unique culture and talents for music, arts, plays, writing, sports, business and foods being exalted, not just accepted. Many are becoming proud race leaders in the social, educational and governmental institutions of America and in the wider world affairs and culture.
But racism and religious hatred is not gone from the heads and hearts of millions of individuals around the world. There are creeds of hate in a number of cultures. Leaders who pander on the concerns and the separation and suspicions of people — some conscious and some tragically unconscious and unrealized — always promote high walls of separation and fear.
A person’s commitment to work for America’s best ideas requires an obligation to end social injustice, poverty and loss of hope. It should be the mission of today’s leaders and followers. As Dr. Washington would say, “If I can succeed, you can too.”
This spirit of hope and neighborly respect is the legacy of Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes, his family and their friends in the community of the African Zion Baptist Church. They fulfilled an inspirational covenant with God in the darkest hours of the republic to start a “royal priesthood” and build a “holy nation.” The covenant to build a “holy nation” in the Zion of their day for the benefit of the Zion in our day should be explored, detailed and celebrated as a great American story we all can share and apply to today’s new problems of diversity, inequality and despair.