Booker T. Washington and Herman Cain: Two peas from the same pod?

Let me make this perfectly clear, I am a historian not a politician, however, one thing that I am certain of is that Herman Cain is NOT Booker T. Washington.  Several blogs and articles have summoned the ghost of Booker T. Washington in order to draw stark comparisons to the GOP front-runner.  Some have used these comparisons to label Cain as an Uncle Tom while others have used this comparison of better understanding Black conservatives.  Whatever the case may be, one thing should be made clear, between Cain and Washington only ONE stood directly with the people, and that man was Washington.

Yes Washington was a social conservative who practiced a self-help ideology.  However, people must understand that one of the main differences rests in the fact that Washington took the time to teach African Americans AND other minorities (Indians, Afro-Spanish descendants and Africans) how to lift themselves up through various means of thrift, and an education of the head, heart and hand.  Nowadays, self-help ideology has become synonymous with selfishness and individual uplift.  However, to understand what earlier African American “social/political conservatives” meant by self-help can be clarified by looking at how the ideology manifested into practice.

First and foremost Booker T. Washington stayed where the majority of African Americans were living at the time, in the South.  Unlike many of Washington’s harshest critiques, Washington lived and operated out of the most hostile environments in American history.  Before dying he was quoted as saying, “I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South and I expect to die in the South.”  Washington was unwaveringly committed to his Southern brethren, maybe naively, but his loyalty to the people goes without question.

Although Cain has proven a very successful businessman, he hangs his hat on Godfather’s Pizza.  From this venture Cain has made millions, employed numerous workers and proven that anyone can be successful.  However, Washington not only created an institution that boasted an all black faculty, staff, and student body, he was also responsible for numerous extension programs like The Farmers Conference and the National Negro Business League, programs that continue to benefit millions to this very day.

The first Farmers Conference was held in 1892 and aimed at bringing together representatives of everyday working farmers, mechanics, ministers and teachers.  The two primary purposes of the conference aimed to find out from the people, themselves, the facts as to their condition and to get their ideas for remedies; and secondly, to get information on how the young men and women now being educated could best use their education in helping the masses of people.  By 1898 the Conference welcomed well over 2,000 attendees.  One source wrote, “Between 1890-1920 the number of blacks who owned farms more than doubled the value of their land and buildings from $69,636,420 in 1900 to $522,178,137 in 1920.”  Last year the school hosted its 119th Annual Farmers conference, which is a testament to the commitment of the University and the benefit of the conference to larger American communities.

In 1900, Booker T. Washington made his message of self-sufficiency and economic empowerment even more practical by creating the National Negro Business League (NNBL).  Within a year the NNBL created hundreds of chapters across the U. S.  These chapters aspired to solve the race problem in America by tackling economic issues and attempting to consolidate African American wealth and power.  They believed that through economic empowerment, social and political empowerment was sure to follow.  The League included famous and successful doctors, lawyers, small business owners and many other working professionals.  Through Washington’s and the League’s efforts, these men and women were able to expand numerous black business networks and foster vibrant African American business communities.  Although its influence is not as prevalent as it was at the turn of the century, the NNBL continues to operate under its new name, the National Business League and has many college chapters, The National Student Business League.

Lastly it is essential to remember that Washington has only gotten a bad rap since the launching of the more progressive Civil Rights movement.  Except for Du Bois, William M. Trotter, Ida B. Wells and a few other Northern critiques, Washington captivated the respect and admiration of the majority of American people during that time.  This is evident through the thousands of letters written to his institution, newspaper reports during his lifetime and even correspondence between him and Du Bois who almost ended up teaching at Tuskegee the summer before he published The Souls of Black Folk.  Herman Cain has a LONG way to go before he can be considered to be a race leader or even mentioned in the same breath as Washington, not saying Cain should not be applauded for his business acumen or political success, I’m just saying God Fathers pizza is not the NNBL or Tuskegee.

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2 thoughts on “Booker T. Washington and Herman Cain: Two peas from the same pod?

  1. Brian!

    This is an AWESOME piece man and I tip my hat to you for penning this document man! You know I’m a huge Booker T supporter man and everything he stood for. I find it strange that anyone who lift their tongue to comparer Mr. Cain to Mr Washington on the basis that they were both conservatives? LOL – I shake my head at such idiotic school of thought At any rate – great piece man and I think you should send to some professors at Hampton U and see if you can sponsorship to have a symposium on the topic on campus – I would def be interested in supporting. Hope all is well – I am glad to see that you are turning the corner on your liberal worldview, LOL!

    • We have officially arrived now that we have your approval Mr. Bell! That is an excellent idea to reach out to professors at HU. I think these are the types of discussions that need to be held, especially given the school’s important historical legacies… And am I “turning the corner” on liberal worldview’s?? I was thinking your conservative base had been rattled!!

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