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Booker T. Washington
April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915
Educator, Author, and African American Civil Rights Leader


Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American political leader, educator, orator and author. He was the dominant figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915. Representing the last generation of black leaders born in slavery, and speaking for those blacks who had remained in the New South in an uneasy modus vivendi with the white southerners, Washington was able throughout the final 25 years of his life to maintain his standing as the black leader because of the sponsorship of powerful whites, substantial support within the black community, his ability to raise educational funds from both groups, and his skillful accommodation to the social realities of the age of segregation.
Washington was born into slavery to a white father and a slave mother in a rural area in southwestern Virginia. After emancipation, he worked in West Virginia in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads seeking an education. He worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary. After returning to Hampton as a teacher, in 1881 he was named as the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Washington received national prominence for his Atlanta Address of 1895, attracting the attention of politicians and the public as a popular spokesperson for African American citizens. Washington built a nationwide network of supporters in many black communities, with black ministers, educators, and businessmen composing his core supporters. Washington played a dominant role in black politics, winning wide support in the black community and among more liberal whites (especially rich northern whites). He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education. Washington's efforts included cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists, which helped raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of blacks throughout the South, work which continued for many years after his death.

Northern critics called Dr. Washington's followers the "Tuskegee Machine." After 1909, Washington was criticized by the leaders of the new NAACP, especially W.E.B. DuBois, who demanded a harder line on civil rights protests. Washington replied that confrontation would lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks, and that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way to overcome pervasive racism in the long run. Some of his civil rights work was secret, such as funding court cases.

In addition to the substantial contributions in the field of education, Dr. Washington was the author of 14 books; his autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today. During a difficult period of transition for the United States, he did much to improve the overall friendship and working relationship between the races. His work greatly helped lay the foundation for the increased access of blacks to higher education, financial power, and understanding of the U.S. legal system led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and adoption of important federal civil rights laws.

Career overview

Washington was born into slavery to Jane, an enslaved African American woman on the Burroughs Plantation in southwest Virginia. He knew little about his white father. His family gained freedom in 1865 as the Civil War ended. As a boy, he invented the surname Washington when all the other school children were giving their full names. After working in salt furnaces and coal mines in West Virginia for several years, Washington made his way east to Hampton Institute, established to educate freedmen. There, he worked his way through his studies and later attended Wayland Seminary to complete preparation as an instructor. In 1881, Hampton president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, the new normal school (teachers' college) in Alabama. He headed it for the rest of his life.

Washington was the dominant figure in the African-American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915, especially after his Atlanta Address of 1895. To many politicians and the public in general, he was seen as a popular spokesman for African-American citizens. Representing the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, Washington was generally perceived as a credible proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow South. Throughout the final 20 years of his life, he maintained his standing through a nationwide network of supporters, including black educators, ministers, editors, and businessmen, especially those who were liberal-leaning on social and educational issues. Critics called his network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine". He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, raised large sums, was consulted on race issues, and was awarded honorary degrees from leading American universities.

Late in his career, Washington was criticized by leaders of the NAACP, which was formed in 1909. W. E. B. Du Bois suggested activism to achieve civil rights. He labeled Washington "the Great Accommodator". Washington's response was that confrontation could lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks. He believed that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way in the long run to overcome racism.

Washington contributed secretly and substantially to legal challenges of segregation and disfranchisement of blacks. In his public role, he believed he could achieve more by skillful accommodation to the social realities of the age of segregation.

Washington's work on education issues helped him enlist both the moral and substantial financial support of many major white philanthropists. He became friends with such self-made men as Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers; Sears, Roebuck and Company President Julius Rosenwald; and George Eastman, inventor and founder of Kodak. These individuals and many other wealthy men and women funded his causes, including Hampton and Tuskegee institutes.

The schools were founded to produce teachers. However, graduates had often gone back to their local communities only to find precious few schools and educational resources to work with in the largely impoverished South. To address those needs, Washington enlisted his philanthropic network in matching funds programs to stimulate construction of numerous rural public schools for black children in the South. Together, these efforts eventually established and operated over 5,000 schools and supporting resources for the betterment of blacks throughout the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The local schools were a source of communal pride and were priceless to African-American families when poverty and segregation limited severely the life chances of the pupils. A major part of Washington's legacy, the number of model rural schools increased with matching funds from the Rosenwald Fund into the 1930s.

His autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today.

Youth, freedom and education

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, on the Burrough's farm at the community of Hale's Ford, Virginia about 25 miles from Roanoke. His mother Jane was an enslaved black woman who worked as a cook and his father was an unknown white plantation owner. Jane was the slave of James Burroughs, a small farmer in Virginia.

Washington recalled Emancipation in early 1865: [Up from Slavery 19-21]

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom.... Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper -- the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

In the summer of 1865, when he was nine, he migrated with his brother John and his sister Amanda to Malden in Kanawha County, West Virginia to join his stepfather, Washington Ferguson. Washington's mother was a major influence on his schooling. Even though she couldn't read herself, she bought her son spelling books which encouraged him to read. She then enrolled him in an elementary school, where Booker took the last name of Washington because he found out that other children had more than one name. When the teacher called on him and asked for his name he answered, "'Booker Washington,' as if I had been called by that name all my life;..." He worked with his mother and other free blacks as a salt-packer and in a coal mine. He even signed up briefly as a hired hand on a steamboat. About the only other jobs available for blacks at the time were in agriculture. He was hired as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner (née Knapp), the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, who owned the salt-furnace and coal mine. Many other houseboys had failed to satisfy the demanding Mrs. Ruffner, but Booker's diligence met her standards. Encouraged by Mrs. Ruffner, young Booker attended school and learned to read and to write. Soon he sought more education than was available in his community.

Leaving Malden at sixteen, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Students with little income such as Washington could work at the school to pay their way. The normal school at Hampton was founded to train teachers, as education was seen as a critical need by the black community. Funding came from the federal government and white Protestant groups. From 1878 to 1879 Washington attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and returned to teach at Hampton. The president of Hampton, Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first principal at Tuskegee Institute, a similar school being founded in Alabama.

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute

The organizers of the new all-black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute found the energetic leader they sought in 25 year-old Booker T. Washington. Washington believed with a little self help, people may go from poverty to success. The new school opened on July 4, 1881, initially using space in a local church. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; growing their own crops and raising livestock, and providing for most of their own basic necessities. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. Washington helped raise funds to establish and operate hundreds of small community schools and institutions of higher educations for blacks. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to the mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The main goal was not to produce farmers and tradesmen, but teachers of farming and trades who taught in the new high schools and colleges for blacks across the South. The school later grew to become the present-day Tuskegee University.

The institute illustrated Washington's aspirations for his race. His theory was that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens. Shortly after the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley and most of his cabinet visited Washington. He led the school until his death in 1915. By then Tuskegee's endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, compared to the initial $2,000 annual appropriation.

Marriages and children

Washington was married three times. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, he gave all three of his wives credit for their contributions at Tuskegee.

Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen. He maintained ties there all his life. Washington and Smith were married in the summer of 1882. They had one child, Portia M. Washington. Fannie died in May 1884.

Washington next wed Olivia A. Davidson in 1885. Davidson was born in Ohio and studied at Hampton Institute and the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham. She taught in Mississippi and Tennessee before going to Tuskegee to work. Washington met Davidson when she was a teacher at Tuskegee. She became the assistant principal there. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before she died in 1889.

Washington's third marriage was in 1893 to Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and was a graduate of Fisk University, also a historically black college. They had no children together, but she helped rear Washington's children. Murray outlived Washington and died in 1925.

Politics and the Atlanta Compromise

Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exhibition address was viewed as a “revolutionary moment” by both African-Americans and whites across the country. He was supported by W. E. B. Du Bois at the time but years later the two had a falling out due to difference in direction over the remedy required to reverse disenfranchisement. After the falling out, Du Bois and his supporters took to referring to the Atlanta Exposition speech as the "Atlanta Compromise" speech to illustrate their belief that Washington was too accommodating to white interests.

Washington advocated “go slow” accommodationism. This required African-Americans to accept the sacrifice of political power, civil rights, and higher education for the youth that existed in the current system. His belief was that African-Americans should “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.” Washington valued the "industrial" education, as it provided critical skills for the jobs then available to the majority of African-Americans at the time. It would be these skills that would lay the foundation for the creation of stability that the African-American community required in order to move forward. He believed that in the long term “blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens.” His approach advocated for an initial step towards equal rights, rather than full equality under the law. It would be this step that would provide the economic power to back up their demands for equality in the future. This action, over time, would provide the proof to a deeply prejudiced white America that they were not in fact “’naturally’ stupid and incompetent.”

This stance was contrary to what many blacks from the North envisioned. Du Bois wanted blacks to have the same "classical" liberal arts education as whites did, along with voting rights and civic equality. He believed that an elite he called the Talented Tenth would advance to lead the race to a wider variety of occupations. The source of division between Du Bois and Washington was generated by the differences in how African-Americans were treated in the North versus the South. Many in the North felt that they were being “'led', and authoritatively spoken for, by a Southern accommodationist imposed on them primarily by Southern whites.” Both men sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-Civil War African-American community through education.

Blacks were solidly Republican in this period. Southern states disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites from 1890-1908 through constitutional amendments and statutes that created barriers to voter registration and voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests. More blacks continued to vote in border and northern states.

Washington worked and socialized with many white politicians and industry leaders. Much of his expertise was his ability to persuade wealthy whites to donate money to black causes. He argued that the surest way for blacks eventually to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate “patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness.” This was the key to improved conditions for African Americans in the United States. Because they had only recently been granted emancipation, he believed they could not expect too much at once. Washington said, "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.

Along with W. E. B. Du Bois, he partly organized the "Negro exhibition" at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where photos, taken by his friend Frances Benjamin Johnston, of Hampton Institute's black students were displayed. The exhibition aimed at showing Afro-Americans' positive contributions to American society.

While not publicly confrontational, Washington privately contributed substantial funds for legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, such as the case of Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in 1903.

Wealthy friends and benefactors

Washington associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs. His contacts included such diverse and well-known personages as Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, Julius Rosenwald, Robert Ogden, Collis P. Huntington, and William Baldwin, who donated large sums of money to agencies such as the Jeanes and Slater Funds. As a result, countless small schools were established through his efforts, in programs that continued many years after his death. Along with rich people, black communities also helped their communities by donating time, money and labor to schools. Churches such as the Baptist and Methodist also supported black schools in both the elementary and secondary levels.

Henry Rogers

A representative case of an exceptional relationship was Washington's friendship with millionaire industrialist and financier Henry H. Rogers (1840-1909). Henry Rogers was a self-made man, who had risen from a modest working-class family to become a principal of Standard Oil, and had become one of the richest men in the United States. Around 1894, Rogers heard Washington speak at Madison Square Garden. The next day, he contacted Washington and requested a meeting, during which Washington later recounted that he was told that Rogers "was surprised that no one had 'passed the hat' after the speech." The meeting began a close relationship that was to extend over a period of 15 years. Although he and the very-private Rogers openly became visible to the public as friends, and Washington was a frequent guest at Rogers' New York office, his Fairhaven, Massachusetts summer home, and aboard his steam yacht Kanawha, the true depth and scope of their relationship was not publicly revealed until after Rogers' sudden death of an apoplectic stroke in May 1909.

A few weeks later, Washington went on a previously planned speaking tour along the newly completed Virginian Railway, a $40 million dollar enterprise which had been built almost entirely from a substantial portion of Rogers' personal fortune. As Washington rode in the late financier's private railroad car, "Dixie", he stopped and made speeches at many locations, where his companions later recounted that he had been warmly welcomed by both black and white citizens at each stop.

Washington revealed that Rogers had been quietly funding operations of 65 small country schools for African Americans, and had given substantial sums of money to support Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute. He also disclosed that Rogers had encouraged programs with matching funds requirements so the recipients would have a stake in knowing that they were helping themselves through their own hard work and sacrifice, and thereby enhance their self-esteem.

Anna T. Jeanes

$1,000,000 was entrusted to Washington by Anna T. Jeanes (1822-1907) of Philadelphia in 1907. She hoped to construct some elementary schools for Negro children in the South. Her contributions and those of Henry Rogers and others funded schools in many communities where the white people were also very poor, and few funds were available for Black schools.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was another self-made wealthy man with whom Washington found common ground. By 1908, Rosenwald, son of an immigrant clothier, had become part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago. Rosenwald was a philanthropist who was deeply concerned about the poor state of African American education, especially in the Southern states.

In 1912 Rosenwald was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Tuskegee Institute, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so that Washington could spend less time traveling to seek funding and devote more time towards management of the school. Later in 1912, Rosenwald provided funds for a pilot program involving six new small schools in rural Alabama, which were designed, constructed and opened in 1913 and 1914 and overseen by Tuskegee; the model proved successful. Rosenwald established the The Rosenwald Fund. The school building program was one of its largest programs. Using state-of-the-art architectural plans initially drawn by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the Rosenwald Fund spent over four million dollars to help build 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The Rosenwald Fund used a system of matching grants, and black communities raised more than $4.7 million to aid the construction. These schools became known as Rosenwald Schools. By 1932, the facilities could accommodate one third of all African American children in Southern U.S. schools.

Up from Slavery, and an invitation to the White House

Washington authored four books during his lifetime:

• The Story of My Life and Work (1900)
• Up From Slavery (1901)
• My Larger Education (1911)
• The Man Farthest Down (1912)

In an effort to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of African Americans, Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900.

When Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller and had a major impact on the African American community, and its friends and allies. A dinner invitation in 1901 by Theodore Roosevelt made Washington the first African-American to visit the White House as a guest of the president.

James K. Vardaman, soon to be Governor of Mississippi, and Benjamin Tillman, US Senator for South Carolina, indulged in their habitual racist personal attacks in response to the invitation. Verdaman described the White House as "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable", and declared "I am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship." Tillman opined that "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."

Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Ladislaus Hengelmüller von Hengervár, visiting the White House on the same day, claimed to have found a rabbit's foot in Washington's coat pocket when he mistakenly put on the coat; The Washington Post elaborately described it as "the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, killed in the dark of the moon". The Detroit Journal quipped the next day, "The Austrian ambassador may have made off with Booker T. Washington's coat at the White House, but he'd have a bad time trying to fill his shoes."

Lifetime of overwork, death at age 59

Despite his travels and widespread work, Washington remained as principal of Tuskegee. Washington's health was deteriorating rapidly; he collapsed in New York City and was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14, 1915 at the age of 59. The cause of death was unclear, probably from nervous exhaustion and arteriosclerosis. He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.

His death was thought at the time to have been a result of congestive heart failure, aggravated by overwork. In March 2006, with the permission of his descendants, examination of medical records indicated that he died of hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal, confirming what had long been suspected.

At his death Tuskegee's endowment exceeded US$1.5 million. His greatest life's work, the work of education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.

Honors and Memorials

For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901.

Washington, as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, was the first African-American ever invited to the White House. At the end of the 2008 presidential election, the defeated Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, referred to Washington’s visit to the White House a century before as the seed that blossomed into the first African American becoming the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

In 1934, Robert Russa Moton, Washington's successor as president of Tuskegee University, arranged an air tour for two African Americans aviators, and afterward the plane was christened the Booker T. Washington.

In 1942, the Liberty Ship Booker T. Washington was named in his honor, the first major oceangoing vessel to be named after an African American. The ship was christened by Marian Anderson.

On April 7, 1940, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. The first coin to feature an African American was the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar that was minted by the United States from 1946 to 1951. He was also depicted on a U.S. Half Dollar from 1951-1954.

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