Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was born into slavery and rose to become a leading African American intellectual of the 19 century, founding Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Now Tuskegee University) in 1881 and the National Negro Business League two decades later. Washington advised Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. His infamous conflicts with Black leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois over segregation caused a stir, but today, he is remembered as the most influential African American speaker of his time.
Booker T. Washington’s Parents and Early Life
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5, 1856 in a hut in Franklin County, Virginia. His mother was a cook for the plantation’s owner. His father, a white man, was unknown to Washington. At the close of the Civil War, all the enslaved people owned by James and Elizabeth Burroughs—including 9-year-old Booker, his siblings, and his mother—were freed. Jane moved her family to Malden, West Virginia. Soon after, she married Washington Ferguson, a free Black man.
Booker T. Washington’s Education
In Malden, Washington was only allowed to go to school after working from 4-9 AM each morning in a local salt works before class. It was at a second job in a local coalmine where he first heard two fellow workers discuss the Hampton Institute, a school for formerly enslaved people in southeastern Virginia founded in 1868 by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman. Chapman had been a leader of Black troops for the Union during the Civil War and was dedicated to improving educational opportunities for African Americans.
In 1872, Washington walked the 500 miles to Hampton, where he was an excellent student and received high grades. He went on to study at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., but had so impressed Chapman that he was invited to return to Hampton as a teacher in 1879. It was Chapman who would refer Washington for a role as principal of a new school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama: The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, today’s Tuskegee University. Washington assumed the role in 1881 at age 25 and would work at The Tuskegee Institute until his death in 1915.
It was Washington who hired George Washington Carver to teach agriculture at Tuskegee in 1896. Carver would go on to be a celebrated figure in Black history in his own right, making huge advances in botany and farming technology.
READ MORE: Black History: Facts and People
Booker T. Washington Beliefs And Rivalry with W.E.B. Du Bois
Life in the post-Reconstruction era South was challenging for Black people. Discrimination was rife in the age of Jim Crow Laws. Exercising the right to vote under the 15 Amendment was dangerous, and access to jobs and education was severely limited. With the dawn of the Ku Klux Klan, the threat of retaliatory violence for advocating for civil rights was real. In perhaps his most famous speech, given on September 18, 1895, Washington told a majority white audience in Atlanta that the way forward for African Americans was self-improvement through an attempt to “dignify and glorify common labor.” He felt it was better to remain separate from whites than to attempt desegregation as long as whites granted their Black countrymen and women access to economic progress, education, and justice under U.S. courts:
"The wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than to spend a dollar in an opera house."
His speech was sharply criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois, who repudiated what he called “The Atlanta Compromise” in a chapter of his famous 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Opposition to Washington’s views on race inspired the Niagara Movement (1905-1909). Du Bois would go on to found the NAACP in 1909.
Because of Washington’s outsized stature in the Black community, dissenting views were strongly squashed. Du Bois and others criticized Washington’s harsh treatment of rival Black newspapers and Black thinkers who dared to challenge his opinions and authority.
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Books By Booker T. Washington
Washington, a famed public speaker known for his sense of humor, was also the author of five books:
· “The Story of My Life and Work” (1900)
· “Up From Slavery” (1901)
· “The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery” (1909)
· “My Larger Education” (1911)
· “The Man Farthest Down” (1912)
Booker T. Washington: First African American in the White House
Booker T. Washington became the first African American to be invited to the White House in 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dine with him. It caused a huge uproar among white Americans—especially in the Jim Crow South—and in the press, and came on the heels of the publication of his autobiography, “Up From Slavery.” But Roosevelt saw Washington as a brilliant advisor on racial matters, a practice his successor, President William Howard Taft, continued.
Booker T. Washington Death And Legacy
Booker T. Washington’s legacy is complex. While he lived through an epic sea change in the lives of African Americans, his public views supporting segregation seem outdated today. His emphasis on economic self-determination over political and civil rights fell out of favor as the views of his largest critic, W.E.B. Du Bois, took root and inspired the civil rights movement. We now know that Washington secretly financed court cases that challenged segregation and wrote letters in code to defend against lynch mobs. His work in the field of education helped give access to new hope for thousands of African Americans.
By 1913, at the dawn of the administration of Woodrow Wilson, Washington had largely fallen out of favor. He remained at the Tuskegee Institute until congestive heart failure ended his life on November 14, 1915. He was 59.
Washington left behind a vastly improved Tuskegee Institute with over 1,500 students, a faculty of 200 and an endowment of nearly $2 million to continue to carry on its work.