Author and educator Booker T. Washington played a critical role in the promotion of education and free market enterprise among black Americans at the turn of the century.
Alabama businessman and political consultant Richard Finley joins The Daily Signal Podcast to discuss what the legacy of Washington, who died in 1915, means to him and others in the African American community.
Listen to today’s podcast episode or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on The Daily Signal Podcast today by Richard Finley, who’s head of the Finley Group, a business and political consulting firm in Birmingham, Alabama. Richard, thanks so much for joining us.
Richard Finley: Thank you for having me.
Bluey: You are somebody who’s served on the Republican Party State Executive Committee there in Alabama, and very much have lived through the civil rights movement and history, and you’ve seen it before your own eyes.
And throughout the month of February, Black History Month, we’re featuring some of the stories of American heroes. Maybe some of those who are listeners can learn a little bit more about, so we appreciate you taking the time to share with us about Booker T. Washington specifically and some of your own experiences.
Finley: I appreciate the opportunity.
I just feel that Washington was probably the most significant black figure in American history. And I know that’s arguable, but the things that he was able to do at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, and the economic strategy he had for lifting up a people out of slavery was extremely significant and extremely valuable. And I dislike the fact that it is being downplayed in modern public schools’ telling of black history.
When I initially decided to become politically active in Birmingham, I went to the established black leadership and I told them, I said, “Well, I am going to become politically active, and I’m going to become politically active as a Republican.”
I explained to them that when I was in high school and college here as a young man, being an activist, our fight was with the yellow dog Democrats of Alabama in the South. And I didn’t quite understand returning to Birmingham and finding all of the black leadership now in bed with the yellow dog Democrats who were the oppressors.
Democrats controlled Alabama from Reconstruction up through the 1970s. So they had a long run and all of the segregation efforts, the laws that were put in place to segregate and oppress the black citizens were put in place by the yellow dog Democrats of Alabama.
I didn’t quite understand why our leadership had chosen to get in bed with these people. But I said that if you’re going to be politically active, then you have to have options. If you don’t have an option, then you really don’t matter in the overall equation. They can write you in, and then go pursue those folk who might be exercising their options.
And I felt that black people needed to hear both sides of the story. They needed to be able to get the information, and then make a conscious decision as to which way they wanted to go. Rather than being locked into the party of the same people who had been oppressing us for the  or 400 years leading up to the Civil War.
Bluey: Thank you for sharing that. We appreciate your leadership and speaking out.
I think it’s so critically important that people do have an open mind and understand history. Because I think, too often, as you’ve indicated to me, sometimes we only look at the recent history and not necessarily look back at the figures who had a transformative impact on our country. And Booker T. Washington is, certainly, one of them.
He was born in 1856, died in 1915. He was, obviously, an educator. You mentioned his role at Tuskegee University. He was a leading Republican, at the time. He was somebody who was among that last generation of black Americans who were born into slavery, and then became a leading voice.
So tell us more about him and why you consider him to be such a profound figure in American history, and an influence on your own life.
Finley: I was conscious of him all through elementary school when we were taught black history as part of the Jefferson County, Alabama, colored school system.
In the colored school we had all black teachers who had a sensitivity, or a consciousness to making sure that young black kids understood the contributions that we, as a people, have made to America.
My two heroes were Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. And I tell folk that I believed, as Frederick Douglass did, in free people and, as Booker T. Washington did, in free enterprise. So, free people and free enterprise was sort of my driving motto.
But Washington had a unique plan and strategy for lifting newly freed Africans who had been purposely blocked from learning to read, or being taught the way the system worked in this country.
Ignorance was being brutally enforced upon Africans who were in slavery. And once they were free, Washington had sort of a manifesto of here are the things that you need to first do in order to lift yourself up out of the poverty that you were left in.
In 1866, they set you free, but there was no budget with that. And so, newly freed Africans had a major challenge.
But having lived in such close quarters, just through observation, they understood how the system worked. And Booker T. Washington and his team at Tuskegee Institute, working with some Northern philanthropists, started to establish schools so that the newly freed Africans could immediately began to learn to read.
I think if you check the history in that period between 1866 and, say, 1930, illiteracy was reduced within the black community pretty close to 60%, 65%. So it was a major achievement in establishing a school network.
And there was an eagerness, or a hunger, from the newly freed Africans to learn to read and write the language—from being in proximity with the plantation owners—and how they operated the business they had picked up, pretty much, how the system was working.
If you look during that period, there was substantial economic gain made within the African or black community. They rapidly acquired what, ultimately, wound up being at the height about 15 million acres of land, went into various business pursuits. And Tuskegee was sort of the training ground, or the breeding ground, for this entrepreneurial effort.
Tuskegee Institute, if you read the stories, they talk about how they took straw and made bricks, and built the buildings on the campus at Tuskegee Institute. Well, not only were they making bricks and masonry products, they were doing lumber. And they became one of the largest, if not the largest, supplier of building materials in the South.
And with that business acumen, Dr. Washington then set about on a plan that was to be called the Tuskegee Industrial Complex. He established organizations all over the country under the title of the National Negro Business League. He had in his employ, at Tuskegee Institute, Dr. George Washington Carver, and several other botanists, and chemists, and scientists who were putting together a lot of the products that we use today.
It was his plan to turn Tuskegee into an industrial complex to create these various common need products, the deodorants, the soaps, the hair creams, all of these things were things that were being made from plants in Dr. Carver’s laboratory.
So Washington’s plan was to begin to manufacture all of these products there at Tuskegee, and distribute them across the country through the National Negro Business League.
He also, as I said earlier, had the capability for the building materials and so forth. He was building out of this industrial complex concept what would today be a multibillion-dollar American corporation.
A lot of this stuff that Proctor & Gamble was doing, a lot of that stuff that Kellogg was doing, and Rockefeller, and Firestone. All of these industrial giants were constant visitors at Tuskegee and with Dr. Carver.
To this day, some of their institutions still contribute to Tuskegee’s well-being, but they also became very wealthy corporations off of the formulas that Dr. Carver had put together.
Dr. Carver was the first to create synthetic nylon that was crucial to the American war effort. When they started developing automobile tires, Firestone was the beneficiary of what they were doing at Tuskegee in terms of creating rubber and synthetic nylon from the products that Carver was growing there on the Tuskegee properties.
Bluey: It’s really fascinating to hear you share those examples. Clearly, Booker T. Washington had a passion not only to educate, but also an entrepreneurial spirit as well, as you indicated there. …
We were at an event together in Washington, D.C., in February, it was put on by Black Americans for a Better Future, and you shared with me Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition speech. And it’s really fascinating in the impact that it had.
I wanted you to share a bit about that particular address and how it really set the course in motion, some of the things that he was able to accomplish.
Finley: It was a plan, a roadmap, if you will, that was put before the American white community, the business community.
The left wing, or the socialist elements of the time, headed up by W.E.B. Du Bois, labeled it a compromise speech. And I just assumed that they didn’t understand what Washington was putting forward. He was putting forward a plan for economic growth and development here in the South.
And his position with the Southern white businessmen were OK, if we are allowed uninterrupted to acquire land, to farm that land to build our churches, our schools, and our homes. And, in fact, own that property uninterrupted by whatever government the South was putting in place at the time then we, as newly freed Africans, we as newly freed participants in the American economy would want to establish, basically, a parallel relationship, or a parallel economy where we would bring our excess produce to the market, and we would live as neighbors. All being Americans.
Washington was a nationalist. He believed in America, he believed in the American concept, and he wanted the newly freed Africans to be able to establish a parallel system, as well as a parallel economy.
He said to the assembled people, anything social, that’s your preference. We can be as separate as the fingers on the hand, but should we be attacked by an outset aggressor, then be assured that we as citizens of the country will come together with you to defend America against any enemy, foreign or domestic.
He made that statement to the established audience there. But he then went on to talk about our sojourn up to that point here in America and the challenges that we were facing now as free American citizens.
If you remember, during that time frame, the great American railroad experiment was beginning, and the Chinese were the immigrants of the day, and they were taking jobs that the newly freed Africans were applying for, or wanting to do. And Washington addressed that position in his speech as well, the immigration problem.
Again, he went on to assure them that, hey, we’ve been here living in close proximity for  or 400 years, we’ve never, to any real extent, had a major uprising. We’ve been in situations where you’ve got  or 300 slaves on a plantation with maybe 10, 12 white people on the plantation. So, if there was any ill intent, it would’ve shown itself a long time ago.
So, he was saying that you could be comfortable with the black citizens. All we wanted was an opportunity to be productive and to generate and own property of our own, to be able to educate our children, to be able to establish and conduct our church and religious life as free citizens here in America. And, again, as a parallel to what was existing within the white communities at that time.
Finley: So it was the first presentation of separate and equal. And it was, I think, well, you can read the other stuff that was in there, but it was the first actual deal or arrangement put on the table for blacks and whites to coexist in America.
Bluey: And we will make sure that we link to it for our listeners or our readers on The Daily Signal so they can see.
Richard, one final question for you. You spoke about the importance of educating today’s Americans and young people about our history. What are some steps that you’re taking, or what advice do you have for our audience who want to do a better job of making sure that young people understand those American heroes who came before us?
Finley: The thing that’s most personal to me now is, at my age, to have time to sit down and talk with young people. I think we need to encourage the storytelling. And, especially, within the black community, we are losing generations to poor public education. And now, with the advent of social media and the electronic communications, they’re getting stories that are coming at them so fast that they don’t have time to put them in perspective, and to understand what it is that they’re getting in all this information that’s flowing.
… I’m 70 years old, so I’m at the point where, as I told my children, I said, “I was there when the colored sign came down and I’m not sure it was the best thing to do for us.”
I said, we had, at that time, operating in Alabama, five nationally-established black insurance companies that were employing thousands of black people across the country. We had three banks here in Birmingham. We had a community that consisted of doctors and dentists and all of the various medical capabilities. We had a black-established and -run hospital within our community and we had the pharmacist in our community. All these businesses were going.
When Martin Luther King [Jr.] arrived in Birmingham, he had to have a serious conversation with A.G. Gaston who, at that time, was one of the leading black businessmen in the country. But he was stationed here in Birmingham and owned major buildings and property in, what is now, downtown Birmingham proper.
He cautioned King and his followers that they need to give serious thought to what would happen after the colored sign came down, and how would we be positioned financially or economically to compete in the broader market with the much more financially established white entities in a downtown area.
So we had a lot of questions that were going on that don’t get told in the stories of history today. It was a significant debate about the economic cost of integration to the black community. And people need to understand that there was not a whole lot of problem with the concept of separate and equal. The problem was we never could get the equal worked out.
Bluey: That’s right.
Finley: And the public tax revenue didn’t come into our community, but we had successful black businesses going on. We had successful black churches, black contractors were building houses. We had what by most standards would be a pretty comfortable working-class or middle-class existence in Birmingham. And that was lost once the colored sign came down. And we have not been able to reestablish.
I hear black businesses crying, “Well, we don’t have capital to do this, that, and the other.” I’m saying, I’m old enough to remember when we had all of these things, and whatever capital was needed we were able to put it together to do what needed to be done.
So understanding that history, and what we built, and how we built it, the drop in the link of communications has interrupted our ability to build on those successes.
The Johnson Publishing companies, the 300 black-owned radio stations, the 15 million acres of land, all of that is lost. And I feel that … the misdirection of the public education system and the breakdown in the family communications within our community have cost us tremendously. And that history, that story needs to be told.
When I talked to you about T.M. Alexander, the Rosa Parks story is a great human interest story, but this was the Montgomery bus boycott, [which] was an organized quasi business entity that was going on here. And the people didn’t stop going to work, they just stopped riding the bus.
In creating a car pool to be able to deliver these people to their jobs, they needed to have a blanket insurance. So we had a millionaire black insurance executive insurance company owner out of Atlanta who stepped up and provided a $2 million blanket policy to cover the bus boycott.
Now, Rosa’s courage is not to be diminished, but there was a business end to this, and the black conservative businessmen who, for the most part, were all Republicans, provided the financial strength necessary.
They did this up until the point that the movement itself became integrated, and groups with other objectives got involved. And then, I think, the black community sort of got lost in the shuffle.
Bluey: Richard, I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing and coming on The Daily Signal to share these stories with us. It’s incredibly important to all of us that here at The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal we keep this history alive and continue to tell these stories.
It’s so powerful to hear about them, and to have somebody like yourself who cares so passionately do it is a real treat for us. So I want to thank you, again, for joining us on The Daily Signal Podcast and [I] hope to have a future conversation with you and continue talking about this.
Finley: Well, I want to thank you. I appreciate what you’re doing and I hope you do continue to do this service for our community.
Bluey: Thank you.
Finley: Thank you.