Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was one of the most influential (and controversial) African Americans in history. Raised the son of a slave mother, Washington was self-motivated and committed to his own education from a young age.
The tumultuous time in America’s history during which he lived afforded him new freedoms that came from Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the eventual success of the North in the Civil War. He took the first opportunity to attend a formal school, Hampton Institute, which led to professorship and the founding of one of the most prestigious African American educational institutions of the nineteenth century, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Washington was seen as accommodating the status quo of African American subordination because the message of his writings and speeches was that the road to success for blacks was through achieving economic stability through education (mainly, vocational training); he did not protest, did not challenge the political system, did not speak about the lack of social equality like his critics, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Washington chose to concentrate on what blacks could accomplish by focusing on learning industrial skills; he believed this would help his race secure economic self-reliance. Washington felt the militant rhetoric of Douglass and Du Bois distracted his people from the path to prosperity through economic success.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Hales Ford, Virginia. His mother, Jane, was a slave and his biological father was her master, James Burroughs. Washington had two brothers and his mother later married another slave, Washington Ferguson. His early life was spent living in a small shanty, sleeping on the floor, and working from an early age. At first he only knew his name to be Booker. When he recognized that other children had two names, he added the last name of Washington. It was not until later in life that he learned that his mother had given him the name of Taliaferro at birth.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, life did not immediately change for Booker and his family. His stepfather escaped to the North during the War and, after it ended, Booker and his family joined him in Malden, West Virginia. At this stage in life, Booker was forced to work in the salt mines of West Virginia. He dreamed of going to school, but that was not legal for black children at the time. He was relegated to carrying the books of white children and looking through the school windows.
Eventually, his mother was able to acquire a copy of a Webster’s spelling book and Booker studied it vigorously. After some convincing, his stepfather did allow him to attend a school for African American children, but he still had to work in the salt mines before and after school to help provide for the family.
Washington learned about a school for former slaves called Hampton Institute while working in the mines. In 1872, after saving enough money, he left the mines to attend Hampton. It was said that he walked a significant part of the 400-mile journey to the school. Initially denied entrance, Booker impressed the staff of the institution with his janitorial skills and maintained that role to help pay for his education.
It was at Hampton Institute where Washington established his ideals for industrial education. Upon graduation, he returned for a short time to Malden to teach, but eventually was hired by Hampton as a faculty member. In 1881, upon the recommendation of the founder of Hampton, Washington was asked to go to Alabama to start another industrial school.
When Booker T. Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, he was surprised to find that no provisions had been secured for purchase of land or buildings. The only funds for the school—$2500 for teachers’ salaries secured from the legislature as a favor to blacks who had supported a local politician. Booker faced the challenge of finding a suitable location for the school and building the campus. During the early years, Tuskegee Institute was able to operate through the generous gifts of food and money from individual supporters.
It was after moving to Tuskegee that Washington married for the first time. In 1882, he married his childhood sweetheart, Fannie Smith. A daughter, Portia, was born in 1883. Fannie died unexpectedly the next year. In 1885,he married for his second time to Olivia Davidson. Olivia was also working at Tuskegee Institute. Olivia and Booker had two boys, Booker Jr. and Earnest. Olivia died in 1889 and Booker was married, for the third time, to Margaret Murray in 1893. They did not have any children.
By 1891, Tuskegee Institute had grown to a campus that included over 540 acres of land and approximately 400 students. This was a huge increase from the thirty students who had started classes in a church building only ten years before. In 1896, Booker T. Washington secured funding that opened a separate agriculture school at Tuskegee, thanks to the Slater Fund for Negro Education. He had the foresight to hire George Washington Carver to lead this school.
In the year prior to the start of Tuskegee’s agriculture school, Booker had probably his defining moment when he delivered a speech at the Southern States International Cotton Exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. The speech, thereafter referred to as the “Atlanta Compromise,” brought widespread attention to his beliefs of how African Americans could best fit into society at that time.
Washington believed that it was futile, at the time, for blacks to worry about their place in society. He felt it was better to focus on becoming economically self-reliant through vocational training. His beliefs were not embraced by all African Americans. Some in the white community misread Washington’s intentions to mean that blacks should permanently serve in a laboring capacity.
His later years brought Washington both accomplishments and recognition. In 1901, he published an autobiography titled Up From Slavery. The proceeds from this book went a long way to providing economic security for Tuskegee Institute. That same year, Booker T. Washington was the first African American man to be invited to dinner at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. During a trip to Europe, he also had tea with Queen Victoria.
By 1904, Washington had successfully surrounded himself with what was called the “Tuskegee Machine.” This enabled him to be influential in many political decisions and he became viewed as the key national advisor for the African American community. He also was savvy in creating good public relations for his causes through the use of black newspapers and other publications.
Early in the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington declined to be involved in a race relations conference that was the impetus for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was suspicious of the group’s motives and “wanted nothing to do with its militant policies” (Black Americans of Achievement Video Collection 1992).
The election of Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, as the twenty-eighth President of the United States may have been a turning point in Washington’s public rhetoric. Wilson had campaigned with assurances that he would pursue equal rights for African Americans. He did not follow through with such promises after he was in office. Stung by this betrayal, Washington surprised some by publishing an article with a tone more in common with the militant black leaders of this time. Despite this change in rhetoric, many believe that Washington had always done more behind the scenes than he outwardly made apparent or for which he was given credit.
Booker T. Washington died in November 1915. Whether the cause of death was related to exhaustion or a complete nervous breakdown, it was clear that he had made a major impact on the world. This impact would continue to be felt as the United States struggled with racial issues through the twentieth century.
Booker T. Washington moved away from the confrontational approaches embraced by his predecessor in the African American community, Frederick Douglass. It has been debated whether or not Washington was simply being realistic in what could be accomplished during that era or whether he personally believed such approaches were the best for the community.
Whatever the case, Washington clearly was one of the most influential leaders of his time. It must be remembered that Booker lived during a time when blacks were not allowed to vote, most lived in poverty, and very few were educated. The racial overtones in the fifty years after the Civil War made for political and social environments that were unstable at best
In today’s terms, Booker may have been acting in a “politically correct” manner so that he did not lose the support of key white individuals. He worked hard to develop these relationships and may have calculated that a confrontational approach was not advantageous. Washington was also well-known for his abilities to raise funds for the Tuskegee Institute. Many northern philanthropists gave to Tuskegee because Washington had a clear vision for how the school could help Southern blacks make a better life for themselves.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The success of Tuskegee Institute was clearly associated with Booker T. Washington’s ability to raise funds in various ways. His most successful literary endeavor was writing his autobiography Up From Slavery. This book benefited from the national recognition that came from his “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895. It was said that Andrew Carnegie learned of Tuskegee Institute by reading this book and soon became a supporter of the school. The other key philanthropic individual of the time, John D. Rockefeller, also contributed to the growth of Tuskegee Institute.
Key Related Ideas
Teaching African Americans to use education to promote economic progress was a key issue in the late nineteenth century. Booker T. Washington taught many people who came from destitute backgrounds “how to improve their lives by cleanliness, industry, thrift, diversified farming, painting and mending, family budgeting, and better planning” (Toppin 1971, 139). Washington’s ideals set forth many practical concepts that helped the African American community to move from slavery toward integration in the greater society’s economic system.
His founding of Tuskegee Institute as a leading college for African Americans further solidified the role of vocational training or vocational education for the underclass.
It was said that Frederick Douglass believed his own best advice to a young black man was to “agitate!, agitate!, agitate!” On the other hand, Booker T. Washington’s advice (similar to the Protestant work ethic), was “work!, work!, work!” (Ibid., 137). It was this focus on individual pursuit to promote group economic progress, and not directly challenging the social institutions that caused oppression and injustice, which caused critics to label Washington’s viewpoints as accommodationalism (accepting the status quo).
Toward the end of his life, Booker T. Washington is attributed to saying, “more and more, we must learn to think not in terms of race or color, or language, or religion, or political boundaries, but in terms of humanity” (Black Americans of Achievement Video Collection 1992). He believed in equality, but differed on the manner in which it would be achieved.
Important People Related to the Topic
Frederick Douglass (1847-1895) was the clear leader of his race from the end of the Civil War until his death. Unlike Booker T. Washington, “his unceasing militancy inspired blacks of his day and of today to fight against slavery, segregation, discrimination, and all forms of oppression” (Toppin 1971, 282). Douglass escaped from a life of slavery to later influence President Abraham Lincoln’s views on the subject.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) also opposed Booker T. Washington’s approaches to education and accommodation. The first African American man to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard University, Du Bois’ lifetime spanned from Douglass and Washington’s to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s. He believed that education was much more than industrial training and strongly advocated for equal rights.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
Today, Tuskegee University exists because of the leadership first brought to the campus by Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee’s institutional history also boasts of George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Airmen. Carver went on to invent many items based on peanut and soy synthetic by-products.
He also created the dehydration process that vastly improved the longevity of certain foods. During World War II, the university campus was used as a training ground for African American pilots. The campus was chosen because it had an excellent aeronautics engineering program. Over one thousand pilots trained at Tuskegee and many went on to have distinguished tours of duty in the war.
An infamous legacy of Tuskegee Institute is its involvement in a medical study that began in 1932 under the direction of the Public Health Service. During this study, near 400 African American males who had syphilis were studied without disclosing to them the knowledge of their disease. It was not until 1997 that President Clinton formally apologized for the government’s grave misconduct.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is another organization that has roots tied to the era in which Booker T. Washington lived. The NAACP was actually formed by W.E.B. Du Bois and others. The organization’s founders had deep philosophical differences, which have been labeled anti-Washington, regarding the role of African Americans in society during the time. The NAACP grew into a strong and instrumental institution in keeping African Americans organized during the tenuous struggles of the Civil Rights movement that culminated in the 1960s.