Booker T. Washington has been a most controversial figure in the fight for civil rights since his rise to fame in the late 1800’s. Many who knew him believed that he was a straightforward man, and he was admired as a genuine hero to black Americans. In his later years he earned several nicknames, including the Sage of Tuskegee and the Wizard of the Tuskegee Machine. Washington was born heard rumors about his father being a white man.
The soon-to-be-famous civil rights leader grew up in a cabin with an earthen floor and a slave in Franklin City, Virginia in 1858 or 1859. Although he has researched his history, he has only holes in the walls for windows. He and his brother and sister slept on a pile of rags their mother had arranged on the dirt.
Booker was not allowed in school for his color, and the closest he came at the time was walking his Masters’ daughters to carry their books. When Washington was finally allowed in an all black school, he thirsted for knowledge. At about eighteen years old, he learned of an all black college called the Hampton Institute, and was desperate to attend.
He worked several jobs just for traveling money, and when he arrived in Virginia, did custodial work at the school to pay for his room and tuition. Booker graduated in June on 1875 with high honors. Upon his return to his hometown, he was elected to teach a colored school and soon began night school and Sunday school classes. Around this time, the Ku Klux Klan was near the height of its activity. Washington realized it was their mission to crush Negro aspirations of participating in politics, though they were more cruel than most.
Several churches and schools were burned, and innocent blacks were beaten, tortured, and killed. Washington nearly entered politics, but thought he could make a difference in education. In May of 1881, he took an opportunity to teach at a school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. He had visions of making Tuskegee a black utopia, of giving the race the tools to assimilate into society. It soon became an institute for technology and industry, and Washington left the teaching to other highly qualified educators to become the superintendent.
Not to minimize his political accomplishments, Booker began to speak publicly, and gave several and history-making speeches. Some of these included: The Atlanta Exposition Address, where he was limited to five minutes in front of the international meeting of Christian Workers, and his speech to the National Education Association. Many were surprised by the amount of credit Washington gave to white people for helping to start the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He soon had several invitations to speak in the North and South, and was well received.
Booker T. Washington was soon founder and president of the National Negro Business League, and was accused of stealing the idea from another Civil Rights activist, W. E. B. DuBois. The organization grew quickly, expanding from 300 delegates to 3,000, in just fifteen years. By 1915 there were an estimated 40,000 in thirty-six states and West Africa (Booker T. Washington in Perspective, Harlan,103). The League was a great promoter of black enterprise in the early 1900’s, though it was eventually surpasses by the NAACP. Booker T.
Washington aided in the advancement of the African-American race enormously. Through education, public speaking, and a little bit of politics, Washington made his mark on all races. Though controversial even today, he is generally well-respected and admired by the majority. In his own words, “the whole future of the Negro rests largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived… ” (Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington, 92).