Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy

Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents.[1] As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.

After reading Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I began to wonder what impact the Tuskegee Institute had throughout the country. Did it promote a series of schools based on the model of teaching trades to free blacks? How many were there? Or is Ambidexter the only example? What were the features of these institutions? Were they successful? How do people then and now perceive these institutions?

Several hours of web browsing brought quite a few Tuskegee-modeled educational institutions to the fore. I will discuss just a few here, and how the trend has evolved and continues to be used today.

Arthur W. Mitchell, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1935-1943. From U.S. Congress-Black Americans in Congress. Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Public Domain.

In 1903, Tuskegee graduate Arthur Wergs Mitchell founded the West Alabama Normal and Industrial Institute. Like Tuskegee, the school emphasized learning trades, and Wergs stressed the interdependence of the black and white races. Mitchell recognized that reliance on contributions of wealthy Yankee donors was necessary to keep the institution afloat, but he could not secure endorsement from Booker T. Washington and the financial backing that would come with it. Washington likely perceived that the school would compete for the same students and funding sources as Tuskegee. Without external support, only five years after opening, the West Alabama school closed in 1908.[2]

Mitchell was not the only Tuskegee graduate to spread the Tuskegee model; many others founded fledgling schools as well. In 1919, Floyd B. Brown, another graduate, established the Fargo Agricultural School in Monroe County, Arkansas. The school provided vocational training “for the head, hands, and heart,” so African American students could gain practical skills needed to succeed. Brown had adopted Washington’s ideology and method of avoiding racial conflict. Like Washington in Up from Slavery, Brown never directly referred to the violence going on around him, including the 1919 Elaine Race Riot and Massacre in Arkansas, where hundreds of African Americans died in one of the potentially bloodiest racial conflicts in United States history. Rather, Brown insisted that accomplishment, not confrontation, was key to earning greater rights. Like Washington, he accepted segregation and catered to generous white northerners to earn support in both the North and South. He further stressed that blacks “should not be ashamed to start at the bottom of the economic ladder, nor to work with their hands.”[3]

The Fargo school survived the race-based violence enveloping its community, and continued until financial straits caused it to close in 1949. Others did not fare so well. In 1908, a race riot swept Springfield, Illinois. State militia stationed themselves outside the Ambidexter Institute to protect it from white rioters. A year later, Ambidexter had closed due to financial difficulties and likely also as a result of riot tensions. Many Springfield blacks had left the town as a result of the riots. Reverend Edward A. Osborne opened a new Lincoln Manual Training School in Springfield in 1909 to teach trades to African American children. I could not determine what became of this school (unless it became the present-day Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield), but another institution by the same name opened in nearby Peoria in 1907 and lasted until 1915.[4]

The Tuskegee model even extended to South Africa, where John Langalabalele Dube founded the Zulu Christian Industrial School in Ohlange, Natal. He had visited Tuskegee following his education at Oberlin College and admired the practicality of the school’s “education for life” through industrial skills model. Dubbed the “Booker T. Washington of South Africa,” he shared Washington’s strategic ability to use cultural nationalism, ambiguity, and compromise to maneuver between the interests of different racial and regional groups.[5]

Beginning in 1902, United States policymakers even established Tuskegee-modeled schools in Puerto Rico. However, Puerto Rican legislators disapproved of the United States’ efforts to portray itself as a benefactor for Puerto Ricans, whom it attempted to keep subordinate through the limited education Puerto Rican children received in these institutions. Thus, they abolished schools modeled after Tuskegee in 1907.[6]

As in Puerto Rico, not every black educational institution in the United States or abroad embraced the Tuskegee model. Other South African institutions, for instance, corresponded with Washington and admired the idea of an all-black institution that showed “what the African can do for himself,” but questioned the value of industrial education. They recognized that the model had the potential to encourage further segregation by keeping blacks in separate spheres of labor through limited progress, and witnessed whites using the model to encourage the development of a black “peasant” class dependent on the land and manual labor.[7]

Despite intense criticism and failure, many positive elements of Washington’s educational method continue today. Not all Tuskegee schools were successful or welcome, but some managed to adapt to the criticism and adversity they faced and survive. This is the case of Voorhees College, which remains in operation today.

One of the original buildings of the Denmark Industrial School still remains on the Voorhees College campus and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Courtesy Voorhees College.

Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, a graduate of the Tuskegee night school in 1888, made multiple attempts to establish Tuskegee-model schools in Hampton, South Carolina, first for African American children, then for adult men. “Prejudice, arson, jealousy, and ignorance” and other attacks and threats caused each to fail. Finally, she moved to Denmark, South Carolina, where she started the Denmark Industrial School in 1897. Wright strove to be “the same type of woman as Washington was of a man,” and throughout her life she remained “constantly in communication with Booker T. Washington, who guided her efforts with specific instructions, letters of recommendation, and donations from friends of the black education movement.”

New Jersey philanthropist Ralph Voorhees and his wife donated money to buy land and build the college’s first building. Thus, in 1902, the Denmark School was renamed the Voorhees Industrial School in their honor. By 1968, the school had become accredited as the four-year Voorhees College, and became affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church and the American Church Institute for Negroes. The school now stresses religious education along with career training and a liberal arts education, in order to “effectively guide, educate, and shape” young people mentally, bodily, and spiritually.

Voorhees College thrives today by continuing to follow Washington’s Tuskegee model, but balancing it with a liberal arts education. According to Voorhees College:

The college strives to balance practical career training with a well-rounded background in the liberal arts. Dating back to Wright’s era, there has been debate between those who follow the philosophy of Dr. Booker T. Washington and advocated education aimed at teaching job skills and those who believe, as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois did, that a liberal education would help young adults develop as leaders. The Voorhees curriculum today is a mix of the two views.

In accordance with its mission statement, Voorhees students today combine intellect and faith as they prepare for professional careers. They learn to thrive in a diverse global society while pursuing life-long learning, healthy living, and an abiding faith in God. They aim to improve their communities, society, and themselves.[8]

The widespread adoption of the Tuskegee model shows how enthusiastically both whites and blacks alike embraced it. However, despite founders’ attempts to avoid racial violence through these schools’ missions, sometimes the violence led the schools into decline. Others began to criticize the trade school model and advocated for further black advancement into intellectual and political endeavors. But the violence and criticism inspired exploration into new realms of African American achievement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would form in response to the 1908 Springfield riots that threatened the Ambidexter Institute, and black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois would promote black participation in classical liberal arts education to produce black leaders.[9] Eventually, many manual training schools for African Americans would fade away as Civil Rights and the integration of schools made them less necessary. Those institutions that did survive adapted to better reflect the needs of African Americans in a new era.

[1] Curtis Mann, “Another Kind of Schoolhouse: Historic East Side Home, Now Facing Demolition, Once Housed the ‘Tuskegee of the North,” Illinois Times, Dec. 5, 2013.

[2] Dennis Sven Nordin, The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 7-9.

[3] Ibid., 7; Stephen L. Recken, “Floyd B. Brown (1891-1961),” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Nov. 12, 2008; Kae Chatman, “Fargo Agricultural School,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Nov. 17, 2014; Grif Stockley, “Elaine Massacre,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Dec. 23, 2014.

[4] Stephen L. Recken, “Floyd B. Brown (1891-1961),” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Nov. 12, 2008; Roberta Senechal, “The Springfield Race Riot of 1908,” Illinois Periodicals Online, 1996; Chris Dettro, “Taylor House Needs a Financial Angel,” The State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL), Nov. 24, 2012; “Lincoln Manual Training School. Peoria, Ill.” Illinois Digital Archives.

[5] Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: Volume 2: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 273.

[6] Jose-Manuel Navarro, Creating Tropical Yankees: Social Science Textbooks and U.S. Ideological Control in Puerto Rico, 1898-1908 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 196.

[7] Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: Volume 2: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 276.

[8]History,” Voorhees College; Martha Walker and Suzanne Pickens, “Voorhees College Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, Dec. 10, 1980.

[9]NAACP: 100 Years of History,” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; “NAACP History: W.E.B. Du Bois,” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003; first published in 1903), 67-81.


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