Booker T. Washington

Jul 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Education
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Booker T. Washington 1856-1915  Booker Taliaferro Washington was one of the leading African American figures of his era. Born a slave and initially denied an education, he was ultimately responsible for founding one of the preeminent black educational institutions in the U.S., and was known for his philosophy of hard work, vocational training, and self-reliance as the path to full political and civil participation for African Americans.

Up from Slavery

Washington was born in 1856 to an enslaved mother, and a white father who may have been her master, near Hales Ford, Virginia. Washington and his two brothers grew up in typically harsh conditions, sleeping on the bare floor of a shanty and working from a very early age. His mother married a slave named Washington Ferguson, who escaped with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Schooling for slaves was illegal, and the closest young Washington got to a schoolhouse was to carry books for the master’s daughter. He adopted his stepfather’s first name as his own last name, and in 1865, liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation, he and his mother rejoined his stepfather in Walden, West Virginia.

Washington labored in salt plants and coal mines. In order to attend a local school for Blacks, he began work at 4:00 am and returned to the mine in the evening after school. While working for the mine owner’s wife as a houseboy, he received her encouragement to continue his education. In 1872 at age 16, Washington set out on foot for a 500-mile journey across Virginia to a school devoted to training black teachers, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). He worked odd jobs along the way, and arrived at the school in such a disheveled condition that he was initially denied admission. After proving his worth by cleaning a room, he was admitted and given a job as janitor to help defray his tuition.

The school’s principal, Samuel Armstrong, took an interest in Washington and became his mentor. Armstrong’s views on practical education provided the basis for much of Washington’s subsequent philosophy. After graduating he taught briefly back in West Virginia, and then attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. from 1878 to 1879. Shortly thereafter, Armstrong was asked to recommend a white teacher to found a black school in Alabama. He recommended Washington instead.

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute

In 1881, Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama to find that his total budget was $2,000, barely enough to pay a small staff. He established what would become the Tuskegee Institute in a shed owned by the local church, teaching an initial class of some 30 students, acting as the school’s president and first principal. Here his ideas about industrial education and economic self-reliance came to full fruition. Washington believed that political and civil engagement for African Americans, recently freed from slavery and lacking education, voting rights, and knowledge of the political process, would only come from developing vocational skills, hard work and self-reliance.

During this period, Washington spent a great deal of time traveling in pursuit of funds for the school. As a result, he became known as a spokesman and advocate, and was eventually able to purchase an abandoned plantation on Tuskegee’s outskirts. Construction of a building followed, and by 1888 the school was teaching some 400 students on a 540-acre campus. In 1882, he married Fannie Smith, his childhood sweetheart. They had a daughter the next year, but Fannie died soon after. He was remarried to a former Hampton student and Tuskegee assistant principal Olivia Davidson in 1885; they had two sons prior to her death in 1889. He then married Margaret James Murray in 1893.

In 1895, Washington was honored with an invitation to address the Southern States International Cotton Exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. His speech, widely reported in the press and dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise,” articulated his theory that militant struggles against the prevailing post-Reconstruction order were futile. This view invited opposition, notably from W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and other black thinkers involved with the Niagara Movement and the creation of the N.A.A.C.P.

But Washington had mastered a political balance that enabled his finest achievements: southern Whites were sufficiently comforted by his positions to allow his institute to prosper; northern Whites, including philanthropic titans John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, were sufficiently reassured to donate large sums of money; and Blacks were sufficiently motivated to attend Tuskegee in pursuit of practical training and economic rewards. In private, Washington personally financed various anti-segregationist, civil rights, and general education causes; but his public persona was labeled by Du Bois “The Great Accommodator,” and relations between the two leaders deteriorated. Washington also secured funding for dozens of smaller schools throughout the South, and for the establishment of a Tuskegee agricultural school in 1896. He engaged the preeminent African American agricultural chemist, George Washington Carver, as its leader. He founded the National Negro Business League in 1900 to support “commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement.”

By this time, Washington was widely perceived as the leading spokesman and key national advisor for the African American community. He was the first of its members to be invited to the White House by a President, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1901. He was routinely consulted on all federal political appointments of Blacks by both Roosevelt and President William H. Taft. Also in 1901, he published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, a best-seller which further enhanced Washington’s reputation; the proceeds helped underwrite Tuskegee’s financial security. His standing was soon international: he toured Europe, where he was received by Britain’s Queen Victoria. During the final years of his life, Washington lectured extensively nationwide, making the most of his role as senior spokesman, and speaking out more actively against racism.

But he succumbed to exhaustion due to overwork in 1915 at age 59. By that time the Tuskegee Institute had an endowment of $1,945,000, a staff of almost 200, and a student population of 1,500. Today, Tuskegee University has 3,000 students on a 5,000-acre campus with over 70 buildings. Notable additions include the Tuskegee Veteran’s Administration Hospital, the Tuskegee Airmen flight training program, the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, doctoral programs in integrative biosciences and materials science and engineering, a College of Business and Information Sciences, and an Aerospace Engineering department at the College of Engineering, Architecture and Physical Sciences.

In recognition of Washington’s remarkable contributions, he was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College. His birthplace was made a National Monument in 1956, and he was the first African American to be featured on a U.S. coin, the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar, and on a United States Postal Service stamp.


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