Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded the Hampton Institute, which was, in its time, considered a model for the education of African Americans. Armstrong, however, believed that Blacks were educable but inferior, and his goal was to train them for work in the trades and accommodation to White attitudes.
He was born January 30, 1839, in Maui, Hawaiian Islands, to missionaries Richard and Clarisa Armstrong. His father developed a vocational and industrial educational program for the local indigent people employed mostly in sawmills and sugar plantations. Samuel Armstrong attended the Royal School at Punahou before enrolling at Williams College in Rhode Island.
In 1862, he joined the Union Army, frequently working with Black soldiers. Viewing himself as a patriot and humanitarian, he joined the Freedman’s Bureau following the war. Drawing from family experience, he advocated vocational and industrial education aimed to situate the restless Black population, stabilize the South, and ultimately help reunite the divided country.
Financed by the American Missionary Association and assorted philanthropists, he established Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1868 as a teacher training program. Armstrong developed a Hampton philosophy and curriculum that included teaching the dignity of labor, learning of vocational and domestic trades, extensive Bible study, a bootstrap philosophy, cleanliness, manners, and forgiveness for the South’s racial legacy. Dignitaries frequently visited Hampton, viewing it as a model for Negro education. Hampton choral groups and handpicked students were sent on road shows to advertise the school and its accommodationist views.
Armstrong was far more than a school principal or president. He was a racial ideologist, political theorist, and social engineer. His views were clearly articulated in voluminous writings in the Southern Workman, a Hampton publication.
He viewed the Black race as intellectually inferior yet capable of learning. He wrote that Blacks belonged to the “savage races” who were “mentally sluggish” and “indolent.” For Armstrong, character deficiency was the central problem. He wrote, “His worst master is still over him—his passions. . His main trouble is not ignorance, but deficiency of character. . . . The question with him is not one of brains, but of right instincts” (Southern Workman, December 1877). Hence, the solution was hard work alongside the inculcation of sobriety, piety, and thrift. Armstrong saw his as a civilizing mission.
Armstrong understood the political economy of Black labor. He wrote, “There is no source whatever of a suitable supply in lieu of Negro labor. . . . The Negro is important to the country’s prosperity” (Southern Workman, January 1878).
Finally, as a social engineer, Armstrong foresaw that America would have a permanently diverse population. He believed that racial feelings would have to be moderated, and a place and a fit would have to be found for the Blacks. Armstrong understood that training some people of color could provide the necessary middle or comprador class that would anchor the group for decades to come.
- Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Harlan, L. R. (Ed.). (1972). The Booker T. Washington papers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Talbot, E. A. (1904). Samuel Chapman Armstrong: A biographical study. New York: Doubleday.
- Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White architects of Black education: Ideology and power in America, 1865–1954. New York: Teachers College Press.
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