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Margaret Washington : The Aspirations of African Americans

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Maragret Washington One of the most distinctive aspects of the African American population in 1900, that group who was coming of age, was that they were not born in bondage. They were not tied to bondage the way their parents were. Most of their parents had been born in bondage and that carried with it unfortunately a certain baggage. It not only carried a tie to the land, specifically the land in the South, but it also carried a mind-set that the African Americans coming of age in 1900 didn't have. They were more adventuresome. Both groups, both those born in bondage and those coming of age in 1900 wanted to better themselves. But for those in 1900, there were all kinds of avenues which they wanted to pursue to create that better world.

African Americans who were born in bondage.... Firstly I think you have to understand that we as a people always aspired. And even when we were enslaved we aspired to freedom. So for those of us who obtained that freedom, we wanted something better for our children. And while African Americans who were enslaved were for the most part not going to leave the place where they had been born, the region, they certainly wanted their children to go further. And at first further meant moving from the rural areas to the Southern towns. But by 1900, because of the myriad of problems that African Americans faced in the South, going further and aspiring higher meant actually leaving the area. So for those of our people who were born in bondage, leaving the South meant another form of mobility. They themselves might not have been willing to try it, but they were certainly in favor of their children looking for something better. And as the African Americans put it, "Bettering my condition by leaving."

Many African Americans are moving to Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. is in essence the black capital. I should say the middle class black capital. And by 1900 it has the largest black population. That begins however right after the Civil War and it just begins to mushroom, because mainly the Republican Party is in office and the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, is the party of emancipation. So African Americans began to flock to Washington, because Washington represents freedom and Washington represents equality. And so a large black middle class emerges because of the patronage within the Republican Party and because some of the best and brightest of the race converge there.

African Americans are aspiring to economic and political mobility. That means they want to be doctors, they want to be lawyers, they want to be teachers. They want whatever America has to offer. And they're willing to go where they need to go to get that. So for them that means first, Washington and then other cities. But it is a kind of economic thrust and it is important to realize I think that economic mobility for them is more important than anything else because they see that as the avenue down the road to social mobility.

Mobility meant, first of all, education. This was the key to the African American sense of advancement. Actually it always had been. They had been deprived of this, they had been denied education and yet they had the insight to realize that knowledge was power. So education was a key for African Americans, setting up schools, setting up all kinds of institutions where they could educate themselves. And for African Americans, many times education did not necessarily mean an educational structure, but it meant a vehicle by which they could learn. Sometimes that meant through the churches, because African Americans were oftentimes kept out of the political structure, then the institution of the church became the means by which they were able to educate themselves, to assume positions of leadership and the church became an institution and a vehicle for mobility and for literacy and for knowledge whereas the political sector was something that in many ways began to be closed to them. So they began to use their institutions within the community, not just the educational structure in its formal way, but to create ways of educating themselves as a people that were not necessarily within the formal structure of education as we think of it. And the church was a very important aspect of that, as were the various benevolent societies which they set up all kinds of ways. So for us as a people, institutional building did not mean simply education and politics, but it meant all those ways in which African Americans could obtain literacy and obtain a wider knowledge of the world that they could take back to their community and hopefully somewhere down the road, use in the wider society. But there was always this effort to prepare themselves and to think in terms of education, whether it was in the formal structure, which was being gradually closed to them, or whether it was in a larger sense of what the African American community considered educating ourselves as a people.

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