An Assessment of Booker T. Washington’s Role in Africa

Although the two never met, much was passed on from Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey. In fact, Washington’s philosophy and ideology influenced Garvey more than anyone else’s. Of all the African nationalists that Washington would have contact with and come to influence, none of them wielded more influence among Africans—in the Americas or on the continent of Africa itself—than Garvey.

Washington’s notion of self-help very much appealed to Garvey; that this philosophy was applied and manifested in the separatist model known as the Tuskegee Institute affirmed that it was not merely a theory, but also a practical means of uplifting Africans in America and abroad. Tuskegee as a model of self-help and an exclusively black college was a model that Garvey felt should be reproduced in the Caribbean and elsewhere for the betterment of African people. …

Garvey’s first contact with the ideology of Washington is recounted in Race First (Tony Martin, 1976):

“Several West Indian Delegates attended Washington’s International Conference on the Negro, held at Tuskegee in 1912. Among them were a group of Jamaican educators, including the island’s director of education. A resolution presented to the conference by British West Indian delegates, among them teachers and students at Tuskegee, called for the erection of a Tuskegee in the West Indies and for a visit to the islands by Booker T. Washington. It was not long after this conference that Garvey read Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. This had a profound effect on him and it is from this event that as he put it, his ‘doom’ of being a race leader dawned on him.” (281-282)

Once he embarked on his journey to the United States, Garvey expanded on Washington’s philosophy, but also inherited his ongoing conflicts with DuBois, which spanned decades:

“What was most fascinating about the Garvey-DuBois struggle was that it was in a most real sense a continuation of the Washington-DuBois debate. The ideological questions raised were largely the same. Furthermore, Garvey was very self-consciously a disciple of Washington.” (Race First, 280)

In the year before Washington’s death, Garvey wrote to Washington on several occasions. Although much of the dialogue between Washington and Garvey concerned the plans Garvey had to enter the United States and raise money for the UNIA, he also kept Washington informed of the struggles African people throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean faced.

Tyrene Wright, MA ( teaches at the City University of New York (CUNY). Mrs. Wright teaches African History and English and writes curriculum for CUNY classes. This article is an excerpt from a paper she presented at the 8th Annual Uncovering Connections: Cultural Endurance between Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean Conference, March 8-10, 2007.