In the face of racial hatred, segregation, and disenfranchisement following the Civil War, it was unrealistic, Booker T. Washington contended, to expect African Americans to gain entry into America’s white-collar professions. Instead, he suggested they establish themselves as a skilled and indispensable laboring class. With that accomplished, racial discrimination would gradually disappear.
In 1881 Washington put this theory to the test, becoming the director of the newly created Negro Normal School in Tuskegee, Alabama. As the school grew, Washington became viewed as the nation’s leading spokesman for African Americans. Yet by the century’s end, many critics began to challenge his “get along” philosophy.
Jim Barber, historian at the National Portrait Gallery, recently discussed this bronze bust of Booker T. Washington by Richmond Barthé at a Face-to-Face portrait talk. The work is displayed on the museum’s first floor, in the exhibition “American Origins.”
Listen to Jim Barber's Face-to-Face talk on Booker T. Washington (17:16)
Face-to-Face occurs every Thursday evening at the National Portrait Gallery. The next talk is tonight (February 25), when L. Michael Seidman, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, speaks about Justice Thurgood Marshall. The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Booker T. Washington / Richmond Barthé / Bronze, 1973 cast after 1946 original / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution