Born a slave on a Virginia farm, Washington (1856-1915) rose to become one of the most influential African-American intellectuals of the late 19th century. In 1881, he founded the Tuskegee Institute, a black school in Alabama devoted to training teachers. Washington was also behind the formation of the National Negro Business League 20 years later, and he served as an adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Although Washington clashed with other black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and drew ire for his seeming acceptance of segregation, he is recognized for his educational advancements and attempts to promote economic self-reliance among African Americans.
Across the landscape of the most anguished era of American race relations (1895-1915) strode the self-assured and influential Booker T. Washington. The foremost black educator, power broker, and institution builder of his time, Washington in 1881 founded Tuskegee Institute, a black school in Alabama devoted to industrial and moral education and to the training of public school teachers. From his southern small-town base, he created a national political network of schools, newspapers, and the National Negro Business League (founded in 1901). In response to the age of Jim Crow, Washington offered the doctrine of accommodation, acquiescing in social and political inequality for blacks while training them for economic self-determination in the industrial arts.
Born a slave on a small farm in western Virginia, Washington was nine years old when the Civil War ended. His humble but stern rearing included his working in a salt furnace when he was ten and serving as a houseboy for a white family where he first learned the virtues of frugality, cleanliness, and personal morality. Washington was educated at Hampton Institute, one of the earliest freedmen’s schools devoted to industrial education; Hampton was the model upon which he based his institute in Tuskegee. Growing up during Reconstruction and imbued with moral as opposed to intellectual training, he came to believe that postwar social uplift had begun at the wrong end: the acquisition of political and civil rights rather than economic self-determination.
Washington’s philosophy and the “Tuskegee machine” won him widespread support among northern white philanthropists as well as acclaim among blacks. In his Atlanta Compromise address, delivered at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, he struck the keynotes of racial accommodationism: “Cast down your buckets where you are,” Washington urged blacks. “In all things that are purely social,” he announced to attentive whites, “we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” His thoroughly bourgeois, antilabor, antidemocratic appeal stood for years as an endorsement of segregation. He sustained his power as an educational statesman by some ruthless and duplicitous methods. Rival black newspapers, educators, and thinkers were frequently intimidated by his brand of boss politics. Black newspaper editors and aspiring young intellectuals risked ostracism and unemployment if they embraced political activism rather than Washington’s accommodationist social policy. Such disputes surfaced especially in the famous debate between Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois over the aims of “industrial” as opposed to “classical” education among blacks.
Growing black and white opposition to Washington’s acquiescence in disfranchisement and Jim Crow led to the formation of the Niagara Movement (1905-1909) and the naacp, activist organizations working for civil and political rights as well as against lynching. Ironically, Washington also labored secretly against Jim Crow laws and racial violence, writing letters in code names and protecting blacks from lynch mobs, though these efforts were rarely known in his own time.
Washington was a pragmatist who engaged in deliberate ambiguity in order to sustain white recognition of his leadership. Such visibility won him international fame and the role of black adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. His widely read autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), stands as a classic in the genre of narratives by American self-made men, as well as the prime source for Washington’s social and historical philosophy. His racial philosophy did not long survive his death, but in theory and practice, his views on economic self-reliance have remained one of the deepest strains in Afro-American thought.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.