A half-century ago, in a seminar exploring a new approach, “psychohistory,” Professor Friedman (long before he was “Larry” to me) assigned Erik Erikson’s 1950 study Childhood in Society. He posed a mischievously simple question to the students that, in time, became pivotal for me. Daringly then among serious academics, but standard now, he asked us, “Why is play therapy?” The question exemplified his abiding, ramifying curiosity and delivered one lesson that stuck: History is so big and humans are so complicated that dedicated historians cannot (should not) be content staying within the narrow confines of their chosen subjects.

So, in cutting-edge courses then grouped under the rubric “social and intellectual history,” Professor Friedman also led us

Page 270

into American political mythology, women’s history, labor history, the rise of the middle class, medical history and the history of psychiatry, the history of human degradation and racism, literary history, the history of sports, environmental history, and a dozen other characteristically leading-edge topics. Look closely enough and deeply enough, Friedman insisted, and history will always surprise you with unexpected and revealing connections that yield contemporary insight. It was the ambitious historian’s duty to do work that counts.

Three decades later, I found myself editor of the interdisciplinary American Journal of Play, charged with gathering the latest thinking from developmental psychologists, psychiatrists, evolutionary biologists, physicians, ethnologists, historians, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, educationalists, mathematicians, and a philosopher or two—an eclectic assembly of relevant disciplines that investigate play. Personally, I continue to think and write in the broad neighborhood of nature and nurture in the history and import of play that I still chalk up to Friedman’s enduring provocations.

Such was the case recently when I again picked up Booker T. Washington’s compelling but problematic 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, a memoir I’d first encountered in one of Larry’s courses on Black history. There I discovered (rediscovered?) something: Booker T. Washington (1901)—an educator, celebrated author, sought-after lecturer, “race leader,” friend to two presidents, and colleague of wealthy and influential philanthropists—described the circumstances of a “miserable, desolate, and discouraging” childhood (p. 1). Growing up with only his first name, Booker, and uncertain even of the date of his birth, Washington (1901) shared a pallet with his brother and sister, a “bundle of filthy rags,” piled on the dirt floor of a tiny cabin (p. 5). Ill-clothed, poorly fed, overworked, and sleep-deprived like most other enslaved children, his early years were also, as far as he could recall, playless.

Much later, Washington became a hero to millions. Devotees called him the “Negro Moses” for his lifelong mission to bring the advantages of education and technical training to 10 million freed slaves and their children. When a curious admirer asked him about the “sports and pastimes” of his boyhood, however, he could spare only a couple of sentences in answer: “Until that question was asked,” Washington (1901) wrote, “it had never occurred to me that

Page 271

there was no period of my life that was devoted to play” (p. 5). Play is nearly universal in the lives of children today. Not so for children in bondage. “From the time that I can remember anything,” Washington (1901) recalled, “almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labour” (p. 5).

Occupied dawn to dusk with farmyard chores, the five-year-old Washington especially dreaded the weekly trip to deliver a large sack of grain to a mill about three miles distant. The bag of corn would be balanced precariously on the back of a horse, and young Booker would be perched on top and sent on his way. Predictably, the sack would fall and take him to the ground with it. “As I was not strong enough to reload the corn upon the horse,” Washington (1901) recalled, “I would have to wait, sometimes for many hours, till a chance passer-by came along who would help me out of my trouble” (p. 6). Terrified by tales of vengeful Confederate deserters who would emerge from the woods to cut the ears off Black children, he usually spent that interval crying. After a tardy return, he would “get a severe scolding or a flogging” (Washington, 1901, p. 6).

Sadly, young Booker’s experience of a playless childhood was not rare in human history. Because for most of the last 10,000 years, a majority of rural societies (that is to say, most societies that were not hunter-gatherers) operated at near subsistence level, hard work for all family members was the rule. For much of our settled past, most children were put to work as early as four or five years of age. (Progress against child labor moved slowly. The employment of children younger than 16 in arduous tasks like mining and manufacturing wasn’t legally prohibited in the United States until 1938.) Accordingly, the separate category of a carefree, playful childhood that we think of almost as a birthright now did not fully emerge until the 19th century. Even then, it was the province mostly of a growing urban middle class.

When emancipation came in 1865, the burden of young Booker’s labors did not lift. Freedom did not equal ease. His stepfather loaned him out to sweltering work at West Virginia’s saltwork furnaces where brine was evaporated to crystalize salt. He soon after worked at even more arduous duties digging coal in the mines that fed the steam evaporators.

Washington—as he named himself—worked equally as hard at the task of self-education. In the antebellum South, teaching

Page 272

slaves to read had been a criminal offense. So, after the Civil War, education for Black children was vanishingly scarce. But in late nights and early mornings, Washington stole time from sleep and rest to teach himself the alphabet from Noah Webster’s original book on grammar, the Blue Black Speller. Keen to escape the “degrading influences” of saltworks and coal mines once free but nearly destitute, he set out on a journey (mostly on foot) to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute where he was eventually accepted as a student.

From General Samuel C. Armstrong, the Institute’s founder, the son of Presbyterian missionaries in Hawaii and later a Freedman’s Bureau official, Washington absorbed the missionary spirit and undertook his lifelong mission to uplift former slaves and their families. He would go on to found and direct the Tuskegee Institute where he celebrated self-sufficiency and self-improvement as well as trained teachers for the “industrial education” of Black students. This was work that counted.

Washington’s trials had made him a realist in the Jim Crow South. So too, the terrorist racial violence and subjugation of Blacks during the White supremacist era cautioned him to accommodate racial segregation. At a famous speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, he famously conceded “in all things purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Washington, 1895, p. 4).

Booker Washington’s concession to the forces of repression alienated contemporary Northern Black public intellectuals, most prominently the crusader for racial justice, W. E. B. DuBois. These inheritors of the abolitionist tradition instead focused on regaining the rights tragically abandoned in the Compromise of 1877. To them, accommodation felt like betrayal and acquiescence seemed like surrender. To Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1904), chair of the Anti-Lynching League, Washington’s “gospel of work” was a route toward permanent subjugation and simply the South’s “old slavery practice in a new dress” (p. 519).

Washington, undeterred by criticism, allowed only one smidgen of regret about the lack of play in his lifetime of hard, continual, ambitious, and consequential work. “I think I would now be a more useful man,” he wrote, “if I had had time for sports” (Washington, 1901, p. 5). He did not say that he would have enjoyed himself more; that he would have been amused,

Page 273

diverted, and restored; that competitive games would strengthen friendships or give him surcease or relief, or that sports would provide the occasion to revel in spontaneity and delight in surprise. He said that sports would have made him more useful. Athletics or play of any sort comprised a means to an end, not an end in itself. Booker T. Washington surely needed no toughening, so there may be something coy and calculated about the claim because sports was emerging among Progressives who supported him as a route to national moral rearmament. But this sentence of Washington’s is key to understanding much of the gospel of work and success, the crusade for efficiency and uplift, and the enthusiasm for sport that was at the core of the psychology that nurtured Progressive thought at the turn of the last century. The sentiment endeared Washington to White reformers and philanthropists who supported his “model Negro schools” that took root across the South.

Here arises one of the surprising and revealing connections that Friedman predicted. For one of these Progressives, Teddy Roosevelt—Vice President, author of many books and essays, adventurer, warrior, reformer, conservationist, boxer, student of jiu-jitsu, and champion of self-help—had a life of striving that culminated in his ascent to the presidency. Though the child of a privileged family, Roosevelt had his own childhood adversities to overcome. Sickly, severely asthmatic, nearsighted, and undersized as a child, he might have settled into a quiet, riskless, neurasthenic, forgettable, and comfortable adulthood. Instead, aiming to surmount his disabilities, he became an advocate and practitioner of the “strenuous life.”

Naturally, the President much admired another self-created figure, Booker T. Washington, who had also triumphed over a wretched childhood. Shortly after his inauguration, Roosevelt set a precedent (and braved a vile racist backlash from White supremacists) by inviting the great man to dine at the White House. In that convivial evening, the two kindred spirits from backgrounds different as one could imagine, and yet both ambitious and strongly paternalistic, saw eye-to-eye on many subjects, including the dignity of “toil and effort” and the utility of sport. To Washington, the institution of slavery degraded not only the enslaved but also the slaveholders who became lazy, dissipated, unskilled, spoiled, and as we will say now, entitled. To Roosevelt, the country itself had become pampered, self-indulgent, unmanly, soft, citified, and consequentially, wanting in both moral and physical courage.

Page 274

Among physical culture advocates at the turn of the last century, a partial cure for the national malaise could be found in the martial values of sport, notably football. In its ideal, football then and now powerfully elevates self-sacrifice, courage, endurance and commitment, rough decency and good sportsmanship, as well as both teamwork and individual glory. In practice at the turn of the last century, though, the game was also marked by savage brutality. Following 19 football fatalities in the 1905 season, several Ivy League schools banned football. In response, Teddy Roosevelt called prominent coaches to the White House to curtail the game’s most dangerous practices. (Thus, he has been called the “sports President,” and was plausibly credited with saving college football, now a national entertainment, from its most violent impulses.) With the sweeping rule changes Roosevelt instigated, the game would become fairer without making it overly, as he put it, “ladylike.” The lessons of the sport could not be lost. In national life aspiration as in a football game, he wrote, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard, don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!” (Roosevelt, 1900, p. 164).

In an essay he titled “The American Boy,” Roosevelt (1900) summarized his stern paternal advice: the young man “must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and play hard” (p. 155). But crucially, like fellow striver Booker T. Washington, play was wholly subservient to self-improvement and national resolve, a pitch that for good and bad is likely to seem shopworn to us now. Roosevelt cautioned that enthusiasts should not confuse means and ends or enjoy play in and of itself. Delight? Pleasure? Satisfaction? Fun? Not for Teddy Roosevelt. Football, he wrote, could be taken seriously only as “the mere means of preparation to do work that counts when the time arises” (Roosevelt, 1900, p. 155).

Exploring the courage, dedication, and hard work of Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt lead me to our honoree. If Larry Friedman’s dedication never quite afforded him the self-satisfaction that he deserves for a lifetime of hard work that counts, he has at the same time been generous with others. In his many books and essays, as well as in his classrooms, he dedicated his mind and energies to exploring the overriding and urgent topics—racism, class, identity, national character, intellectual responsibility, love, politics, food insecurity, and the moral imperatives of a just society. Also, in our almost weekly phone calls, he would

Page 275

challenge me to think about revealing connections among these—most recently on the necessity for international cooperation in the face of a military threat, pandemic disease, and worldwide environmental crisis.

But Larry would never fail to close these serious conversations with a hilarious string of impish observations and NSFW (Not Safe for Work) jokes that would leave us both helpless with laughter. This ritual of blowing off steam now recalls the first time I laid eyes on the distinguished Professor Friedman, from a distance, before we had met. Crossing the quadrangle, dressed in shirt, tie, and a professor’s formal dark overcoat, I watched as Larry broke into a skip. It was, I believe, the first time I ever saw an adult skipping. But the capering fit snugly. Larry’s abiding curiosity and willingness to challenge conventional opinions have traveled alongside a highly developed taste for mischief and fun.

Page 276


References:

  • Klein, Christopher (September 6, 2012). How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football. History.com. www.history.com/news/how-teddy-roosevelt-saved-football
  • Washington, Booker T. (1895). ts. Address by Booker T. Washington, Principal Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama, at opening of Atlanta Exposition, September 18, 1895.
  • Wells-Barnett, Ida B. (1904). Booker T. Washington and his critics. World Today, 6.
  • Roosevelt, Theodore (1900). The American boy. The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses. The Century Company.
  • Washington, Booker T. (1901). Up from slavery. Doubleday & Co.

Authors:

Scott G. Eberle

Scott G. Eberle, PhD, past Editor of the American Journal of Play and Co-editor of the Handbook of the Study of Play, was Vice President for Interpretation and Play Studies at The Strong National Museum of Play where he developed scores of exhibits. Trained in social and intellectual history and the author of several books and articles, Eberle’s publications include “The Elements of Play Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play,” “Playing with the Multiple Intelligences,” and Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame. Eberle also writes the “Play in Mind,” column for Psychology Today on the nature and nurture of play. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Eberle, S. G. (2023). When Teddy Roosevelt met Booker T. Washington: Thoughts on strenuous lives and work that counts. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 270-276.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF

keyboard_arrow_up