John L. Dube and Booker T. Washington: Ohlange and Tuskegee




               Oberlin College has always stressed its motto “Learning and Labor.”  The accomplishments of two important civil rights activists, Rev. John L. Dube, and Booker T. Washington, also were inspired by this motto.  John L. Dube is often called the African Booker T. Washington. Let’s look at the connections between these two important civil rights activists and their relationship with Oberlin College.  Like Dube, Washington played an important role as a civil rights leader, a writer and an educator.  Both these men fought against sharp racial inequalities in their respective nations.


I. Booker T. Washington, Oberlin and Tuskegee


Booker T. Washington was a powerful orator and his lectures often centered on race relations. Washington lectured at Oberlin College on a number of occasions.

Washington’s first documented lecture at Oberlin was in the fall of 1897.  He was the fourth guest of the U.L.A. (Union Library Association) lectures.  His lecture was entitled The Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South.  According to an article in the Oberlin Review, Washington “held the great audience in close attention from the beginning, to the end of his address.” [1] The Review also noted Washington’s “power to move men’s hearts; to bring them into sympathy with his noble and, unselfish aims for the uplifting of his race.” [2] The article carefully noted Washington’s approach to education and labor. The Review paraphrased Washington, writing that the condition of the African American in the South will only improve if “he learns to put brains and skill into his labor.” According to the article, Washington was arguing for more technologically advanced methods of labor. One can infer that at an institution like Tuskegee such methods were taught and promoted.

Washington pushed the boundaries of an industrial education.  At Tuskegee students not only learned how to set type on the printing press but probably also learned how to set type for their own compositions. Similarly Tuskegee pushed the boundaries of an industrial education in their agricultural training.  Students learned farming methods and were also taught marketing skills.  Washington noted in his speech that his goal was to help African Americans make the most of their labor.

The black man works; he is patient, industrious and faithful; but he does not know how to utilize the results of his labor. He can raise cotton, but the trouble comes when he tries to follow it to the market. He finds the door shut in his face. He hasn’t the business skill to deal with it himself there, and others reap the profits of his labor. [3]


The goal of Tuskegee was to empower African Americans with the ability to reap the maximum amount of crop and be able to sell in the market for an optimal price. Washington’s solution to the problem in the Black Belt of the South was practical education. Washington called for an education that would give African Americans an opportunity to better their situation.

               Washington always believed that it was important for African Americans to be self-sufficient.  According to the New York Times,

Mr. Washington said that the greatest injury slavery had wrought on the negro’s character was to deprive him of self-reliance and executive ability, and the chief aim of the school was to cultivate those qualities. [4]


Among the ways Washington sought to restore the character of self-reliance was by teaching printing, blacksmithing, farming, shoemaking, sewing and cooking, at Tuskegee.

Dube was inspired by Washington’s initiatives, and after meeting Washington in 1897, he returned to South Africa and founded the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute (1901), renamed the Ohlange Institute.  Like Tuskegee, Dube’s Ohlange focused on improving blacks’ labor efficiency and increasing the skills of black laborers. This assisted the indigenous African population by giving them more opportunities and increasing their abilities.

In their early years Tuskegee and Ohlange stressed both academic learning and its application in manual and other types of labor. Washington and Oberlin maintained positive relations as they worked towards a common goal, education, and specifically the education of Blacks. Washington writes of Oberlin College “The Universtiy has been…a great moral support to the work of education of the Negro in the South.” [5]


II. King and Washington, Presidential Communications

Not only did Washington praise Oberlin, but also in Oberlin there was much praise for Washington’s educational efforts and achievements. Washington, President of Tuskegee, and Henry Churchill King, President of Oberlin College (1902-1927), expressed mutual admiration.  Washington must have sent King a copy of his work Educational and Industrial Emancipation of the Negro. Replying to this gesture King wrote to Washington on April 13, 1903:


I thank you for remembering me with a copy of your address on the “Educational and Industrial Emancipation of the Negro.”  I can heartily subscribe to the sentiments of the address, and I am sure I do not need to say how greatly we are all interested here in the great success of your work at Tuskegee. [6]


King and Washington communicated on a number of occasions. Washington invited King to the Twenty-Fifth anniversary of Tuskegee. King could not attend, but expressed his sincere regrets.

In addition, King and Washington may have shared their respective writings on a number of occasions. King certainly conveyed a desire to read Washington’s most recent works, writing, “I shall certainly hope to have the pleasure of seeing your work myself later.” [7] Although the letters between King and Washington were always cordial the correspondence surrounding an Oberlin alumna who taught for a year at Tuskegee suggests that at times there was also friction.


III. Oberlin Teachers at Tuskegee: The Case of Ruth Anna Fisher


Oberlin had provided Washington’s Tuskegee with a number of teachers. Washington wrote of Oberlin, “It has furnished, to a large degree, the teachers, black and white, who, in spite of difficulties and in spite of obstruction, have steadily carried forward that work.” [8] Although Washington seems to be thanking the Oberlin alum who had taught at Tuskegee, he would not have good relations with every Oberlin alum eager to help teach at Tuskegee. Perhaps the “difficulties” Washington writes of relate to Ruth Ann Fisher (1886-1975) (OC A.B. 1906).

Miss Fisher, a member of a prominent black family in Lorain, taught at Tuskegee for a year, but was asked to leave due to disciplinary problem. This break with Miss Fisher highlights the difference between Oberlin College and institutes like Tuskegee and Ohlange. While Oberlin’s motto may still be “Learning and Labor,” the focus on labor is definitely secondary.  In its original meaning, “labor” undoubtedly referenced physical, or industrial labor. However in contemporary Oberlin, and maybe even as early as the beginnings of the twentieth century, the word “labor” might not be understood as physical labor, but rather academic labor. This sharply contrasts the goals of Tuskegee and Ohlange. This divide might have contributed to the reason why Miss Fisher was asked to resign her teaching position at Tuskegee.

According to Washington, Miss Fisher refused to assist teaching Sunday School at Tuskegee. Washington and others gave Miss Fisher, “sometime before acting in the matter in order to be sure that no injustice was done to [her] by hasty action.” [9]   Despite Washington’s apparent lenience, Miss Fisher “found herself at odds with Tuskegee’s emphasis on industrial work and the requirement that she teach Sunday school.” [10]   President King apologetically replied to President Washington,


My dear Dr. Washington,

I am exceedingly sorry that Miss Fisher has not met her responsibilities and opportunities better with you. I need hardly say that she seems to have failed at the exact points where we certainly wish our graduates to prove their strength. [11]


President King is clearly apologetic; however he does in part blame Miss Fisher’s actions not on Oberlin College, but on the Conservatory. King continues,


The Students in the Conservatory courses do not have these matters brought to them quite so insistently as in the other courses, but I am sorry she should have disappointed you, and I shall take pains to see that the Director of the Conservatory is informed of the situation. [12]


Although King does attempt to blame Miss Fisher’s faults on the Conservatory curriculum, one can infer, even in the early twentieth century Oberlin no longer stressed industrial labor as an integral part of the college experience. [More on Ruth Anna Fisher click the footnote. [13] ]



IV. Dube, Washington and Oberlin

               In a letter, sent to Washington in March of 1897, Dube makes clear Tuskegee’s influence on the founding of Ohlange.

I am very much interested in just the same work that you are for my people the Zulus of So. Africa. I am here preparing to return and start a school of an industrial character among them. I desire to have an interview with you for I wish to visit both Hampton and Tuskegee before my return to my native land…Please drop me a card early to-morrow morning so that I may have the pleasure of seeing you. [14]


Dube and Washington may have even met in Oberlin during the early twentieth century.  According to Marlene Merrill, Dube was in the United States raising funds for the Ohlange Institute (1896-99) and during this time Dube visited “the Tuskegee Institute and consulted with Booker T. Washington.” [15]   In fact, Washington even asked Dube to speak at Tuskegee at commencement on May 27, 1897. “Dube responded characteristically with an elaborate address that praised Washington’s industrial education work, and detailed the urgent need of self help programs among his people in South Africa.” [16]   Apparently Dube’s speech was well received and the Birmingham News commented on Dube’s “rare force.”  The article continued to praise Dube stating “the Zulu came near being the hero of commencement.” [17]   Washington and Tuskegee were inspirational and guiding forces for the youthful Dube.  Dube was proud of his connection with Tuskegee.

Dube and Washington met at Tuskegee in May of 1897.  Clearly Dube appreciated what he saw there.  Just a few months later, Dube wrote Washington, asking, “ My dear Sir: Can I use your name as indorsing my work. [sic] I have recently visited your establishment.” [18]   Presumably the said establishment is Tuskegee.

Dube continued to respect Washington and seek his approval.  In September of 1907, Dube wrote a letter to Washington in which he enclosed,“a clipping from the Natal Advertiser of  [Dube’s] speech to the Zulu people.” [19]   We do not know specifically which speech Dube is referring to in this letter. Most likely he gave a speech in which he used Christian morality and his biblical education to argue against racial inequalities. In his letter to Washington Dube also included a copy of his newspaper, Ilanga. In addition Dube sent Washington a copy of the Native Commission Affairs Report.  According to Dube, he wanted to present Washington with a picture of “how we have been ruled in the past,” he wanted to “give [Washington] an insight to our life in South Africa.” [20]   Dube continued, telling Washington about Ohlange’s development. According to Dube, he had hoped that an agricultural teacher from either Hampton or Tuskegee might be able to travel to South Africa and teach farming at Ohlange.  However the South African Government denied this request because “they fear that American Negroes would teach our people racial ill-feeling.” [21]

Dube understood Southern Blacks and Southern Africans to occupy similar positions in their respective countries. He voiced his opinions to Washington,

A great number of civilized natives are anxious to push forward in spite of the prejudice of our white people. The condition is much like that in the Southern States in America. They want our ignorant people to stay in their heathen condition so that they can only use them as beasts of burden. Those who aspire to

something higher are not wanted. [22]


Dube writes to Washington as a confidant, a sympathizer, and a mentor.





               Washington and Dube were civil rights leaders, educational founders, and writers. They shared a positive relationship with Oberlin College and lectured at the college on a number of separate occasions.  They also communicated on a number of occasions.

Like Dube, later in his career Washington fell from the fore of civil rights activism because he was not radical enough for new progressive movements.  Dube and Washington accomplished much for our society.  They recognized the importance of practical education and pushed the boundaries of their respective segregated societies. In retrospect, both these activists have been charged with conservatism. While they challenged racial injustice, they nonetheless accepted most of the other social constraints that characterized their society.  Above all, Washington and Dube, were pragmatic men, and perhaps it is their pragmatism that has led some to question their ultimate impact on the transformation of race relations in their respective nations.

[1] “Fourth U.L.A. Lecture. Prof. Booker T. Washington on ‘The Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South’ –A Large Audience Greets The Speaker.” Oberlin Review. February 19, 1897.

[2] “Fourth U.L.A. Lecture. Prof. Booker T. Washington on.” Oberlin Review. Feb. 19, 1897.

[3] “Fourth U.L.A. Lecture. Prof. Booker T. Washington on.” Oberlin Review.  Feb. 19, 1897.

[4] “The Tuskegee Negro School. What it has done in its ten years of existence.” New York Times. Nov. 15, 1891.

[5] Booker T. Washington, Letter to [Oberlin College]. n.d. In 1909 Hi-O-Hi. p. 32. O.C.A.

[6] Henry Churchill King. Letter to Booker T. Washington. April 13 1903. Correspondence series. King Presidential Records, Box 77. O.C.A.

[7] Henry Churchill King to Booker T. Washington. 29 Mar.1906, Correspondence series. King Presidential Records. Box 77. O.C.A.

[8] Oberlin College1909 Hi –O- Hi Yearbook. p. 32. O.C.A.

[9] Booker T. Washington to Ruth Anna Fisher. Nov. 14, 1906. Tuskegee, Ala. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Louis R. Harlan, ed. Vol. 9. p. 125. Urbana, University of Illinois Press. [1972] –1989.

[10] The Booker T. Washington Papers.Vol. 9, p. 125. Footnote #1. Nov. 14, 1906.Tuskegee, Ala.

[11] Henry Churchill King to Booker T. Washington, 26 Nov.1906. Correspondence series, King Presidential Records, Box 77, O.C.A.

[12] Henry Churchill King to Booker T. Washington, 26 Nov.1906. Correspondence series, King Presidential Records, Box 77, O.C.A.

[13] This experience did not stop Miss Fisher from teaching. After leaving Tuskegee she worked as a private tutor for the remainder of the year. Following this Miss Fisher was appointed the Head of the English  Department at Manassas Industrial School, in Manassas, Virginia,1908-1909. [13]   She then traveled to London, where she continued to go against the grain, studying at the London School of Economics as an occasional student from 1920-1923. [13] It was here in London where Miss Fisher found her future profession as a historian. She

served as the official representative of the Library of Congress in England where she directed the Rockefeller Grant “Project A” for the copying of materials relating to American history found in the British Museum, the British Public Records Office, the Libraries of the House of Lords and House of Commons and Windsor Castle as well as various other private archives. She worked chiefly with 17th and 18th century manuscripts which involved records of the British Foreign office, the Colonial, War and Navy offices, and the private papers of such notable political figures as Gladstone and Edmund Burke. (Newsclip. The Washington Post. Mar. 31, 1975. in Student File (Ruth Anna Fisher). Alumni & Development records. O.C.A.)

The outbreak of World War II forced Miss Fisher to return to the United States in 1940. Her diploma was actually destroyed during the bombing of London. (Miss Fisher. Letter to Oberlin College. March 4, 1953. In Student File (Ruth Anna Fisher). Alumni & Development records. O.C.A.) Miss Fisher returned to her position in London in 1952 and worked there until she retired in 1956.

[14] Dube toWashington, Mar. 1897. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 263.

[15] Merrill. “Summary of Dube Findings.”

[16] Marable. p.98.

[17] Marable. p.98. from  Birmingham News, May 28, 1897. BTW Con 1029. 322; clipping, Montgomery Advertiser. May 28, 1897, BTW Con 1029. 325-26.

[18] Dube to Washington. Sept. 10, 1897. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 327.

[19] Dube to Washington. Sept. 21, 1907. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 338.

[20] Dube to Washington. Sept. 21, 1907. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 338.

[21] Dube to Washington. Sept. 21, 1907. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 338.

[22] Dube to Washington. Sept. 21, 1907. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 9. p. 339.