Divide and Conquer

The "Indian Experiment" at Hampton Institute

Hampton's Native American orchestra, ca. 1900

General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founder of Hampton Institute, was a pragmatic accommodationist who dedicated his life and considerable energies not to "radical Reconstruction"--the project of changing the minds, hearts, and, most importantly, social structures of the defeated South--but to educating newly freed Negroes to resume their inferior positions within the South's existing social structures.

Above right, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong

At left, Washington flanked by William Howard Taft
and millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie, right

Perhaps Armstrong's greatest success was Booker T. Washington--a Hampton graduate and Tuskegee Institute's first president. Washington's view, stated most forcefully in the "Atlanta Compromise" speech of 1895, was that "In all thing that are purely social we [blacks and whites] can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (Katz 314). It was a sentiment that dovetailed nicely with his mentor's vision for Indian education.

Armstrong dreamed of creating a model multiracial society at Hampton Institute. Keenly aware of the Hampton Roads area's historical role as an original point of contact between the races (that is, for the United States), Armstrong envisioned a reunion of sorts-- as he wrote to his wife, Emma, in 1878: "Indians working beautifully--a milennial dawn--those races at peace..." (Lindsey 18).

African- and Native American
students pose for an 1887
senior class picture

Armstrong's enthusiasm was both pragmatic and idealistic. One must remember that at the time of its founding, 1868, the existence of a Hampton--or indeed any educational institution for African-Americans--was about as welcome in the South as General Sherman at a Richmond debutante ball. Ever conscious of the precarious balancing act he was attempting between his missionary ideals and Southern social realities, Armstrong recognized in Indian education a win-win proposition.

Virginia's elites, who so enjoyed fancying that the blood of Pocahontas ran in their veins, would prove much more sympathetic to the cause of educating Indians--and much more likely to accept an African-American school that also had Native Americans enrolled. Even more importantly, the Indian experiment created opportunities for sectional reconciliation. Both Northern and Southern philanthropists could be tapped for donations and political support with Indians on board (Lindsey 72-3)

Helen Ludlow, editor of the Southern
Hampton's newspaper and author
of Pocahontas, a poem dedicated
to "the Indian girls at Hampton."

Armstrong's dual mission at Hampton quickly became clear--"uplift" the Negro from his state of degradation; "civilize" the savage and teach him how to work. Members of both races would be taught to dress, speak, work, behave as whites-- despite the fact that they were offered no guarantee that they would ever be offered powers and privileges equivalent to those enjoyed by whites.

In practice, this was to prove a difficult balancing act. The first group of Native Americans who arrived at Hampton on April 14, 1878, were not the relatively acculturated descendants of the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Sioux communities which inhabited Virginia during colonial days. They were defeated Plains warriors--Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, most of whom barely spoke English--who'd been held as prisoners of war in St. Augustine, FL. In order to make his experiment succeed, Armstrong needed to secure the cooperation of both African- and Native American students. The approach that he developed over time we might call "divide and conquer.".

The method was both simple and effective. African-Americans were told to swallow their resentment over the broken promises of Reconstruction, to be grateful for what they had, because, after all, the Indian students were even worse off than they. Native Americans, on the other hand, had to endure constant unflattering comparisons of their work habits, their language skills, and their general progress with those of black students. The hope was that Natives' hostilities toward whites would be redirected toward blacks. In general, the plan seems to have succeeded brilliantly. As Armstrong wrote in 1888,

"You see I've only...boosted darkies a bit, and so to speak, lassoed wild Indians all to be cleaned and tame by a simple process I have invented know as the 'Hampton method'" (in Lindsey 112).

Students at work, 1898

Armstrong's dream of "those races at peace" died in 1923 for a variety of reasons. The first and foremost was the fact of Armstrong's death; his successors at Hampton had neither the vision nor the political acumen to secure the necessary support at the state and federal levels.

Far more important, though, was the hardening racial climate in Virginia and across the nation, e.g., the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling; the rise of Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and groups like Virginia's Anglo-Saxon Club; the popularity of eugenic theory; the rise of the crop lien and debt peonage systems; plus an explosion of pogrom- like race riots in the "Red Summer" of 1919.

In such a climate, it was hardly surprising that Hampton might become a magnet for controversy. Virginians, for example, were scandalized by rumors that white and black teachers might be sharing tables at the dining hall (they were not), that black and red students might be "mingling their blood" (the number of marriages appears to have been relatively small).

Most damaging of all was the discrimination faced by Native American graduates of Hampton. Many graduates reported being fired from jobs when employers learned they had attended a black school. Not even the federal Indian Office could be depended on to hire Hampton grads (Lindsey 260-2).

Caroline Andrus, head of
Hampton's Indian program

Hampton's Indian program died with a whimper in 1923, when Caroline Andrus, the director of the program, resigned because she felt she could no longer prevent "amalgamation" between Indians and blacks. As she wrote in 1923:

                some of the other Indian girls flirted so with the
                colored boys that it made for a good deal of gossip
 	        of a kind I hate and despise.  Now, there will 
		probably be no Indian boys at the school this year and 
		...I am afraid this sort of thing will be worse than
		before and you know how the Indian people feel
		about it...the changed conditions made me feel I
		could no longer conscientiously bring children on
		from the West and that is the reason I resigned
		(in Lindsey 261).

Ironically, Miss Andrus had no such objections to Indian-white alliances. She was to mourn the death of her Indian fiance for the rest of her life.

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