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Booker T. Washington
April 5, 1856(1856-04-05)
November 14, 1915 (aged 59)
Educator, Author, and African American Civil Rights Leader
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was
an American educator, orator, author and the dominant leader of the
African-American community nationwide from the 1890s to his death. Born to
slavery and freed by the war in 1865, as a young man, he became head of the
Tuskegee Institute, then a
teachers' college for blacks. It became his base of operations. His
"Atlanta Compromise" of 1895 appealed to middle class whites across the South,
asking them to give blacks a chance to work and develop separately, while
implicitly promising not to demand the vote. White leaders across the North,
from politicians to industrialists, from philanthropists to Churchman,
enthusiastically endorsed Washington's program, as did most middle class
blacks across the country. A more militant northern group, led by
W.E.B. DuBois rejected Washington's self-help and demanded recourse to
politics. The critics were marginalized until the Civil Rights Movement of the
1960s, at which point more radical black leaders rejected Washington's
philosophy and demanded federal civil rights laws.
Washington was born into
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. 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,
Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first leader of
Tuskegee Institute, the new
normal school (teachers' college) in
headed what became Tuskegee University 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 he achieved prominence for
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
leaders born into slavery, Washington was generally perceived as a credible
proponent of education for
freedmen in the post-Reconstruction,
Crow South. Throughout the final 20 years of his life, he maintained his
standing through a nationwide network of core supporters in many communities,
including black educators, ministers, editors and businessmen, especially
those who were liberal-thinking on social and educational issues. He gained
access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, and
was awarded honorary degrees. Critics called his network of supporters the
Late in his career, Washington was criticized by leaders of the
NAACP, which was formed in 1909.
W.E.B. Du Bois especially looked for a harder line on 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 pervasive racism. Washington secretly contributed
substantially to legal challenges of segregation and disfranchisement of
In his public role, he believed he could achieve more by skillful
accommodation to the social realities of the age of
Washington clearly had his eyes on a better future for blacks. Through his own
personal experience, Washington knew that good education was a powerful tool
for individuals to collectively accomplish that better future.
Washington's philosophy and tireless 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, such as supporting
Tuskegee institutes. Each school was originally 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 much community pride and were of priceless value to
African-American families when poverty and segregation limited their
children's chances. A major part of Washington's legacy, the number of model
rural schools increased with matching funds from the
Rosenwald Fund into the 1930s.
Washington did much to improve the overall friendship and working
relationship between the races in the United States. 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 Burroughs 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. Under the laws of the
time, his mother's status meant that Booker was born a slave. His given name
was "Booker Taliaferro," but during his childhood he was known as only Booker;
"Taliaferro" was temporarily forgotten.
Washington recalled Emancipation in early 1865: [Up from Slavery
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
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
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 (teachers college) 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
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
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. 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
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 the College President at
the University. Washington was head of 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
Booker T. Washington with his third wife Margaret and two sons.
Washington was married three times. In his autobiography
Up From Slavery, he gave all three of his wives credit for their
contributions at Tuskegee. He emphatically said that he would not have been
successful without them.
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
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
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
Atlanta Exhibition address was viewed as an “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 reversing
disenfranchisement. After the falling out, Du Bois and his supporters took to
erroneously 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
 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 where not in fact “ ’naturally’ stupid and incompetent”
This stance was contrary to what many blacks form 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
The source of division between Du Bois and Washington was generated by the
differences in how African-Americans where 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.
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
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
disfranchisement, such as the case of
Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 Negro schools.
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 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 an invitation to the
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.
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.
Washington in 1901 was the first African-American ever invited to the White
House as the guest of President
Lifetime of overwork, death at age 59
Booker T. Washington's coffin being carried to grave site.
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
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
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
Honors and Memorials
For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an
master's degree from
Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary
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
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,
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
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.
On April 5, 1956, the hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth, the
house where he was born in
Franklin County, Virginia, was designated as the
Booker T. Washington National Monument. A state park in
Chattanooga, Tennessee was named in his honor, as was a bridge spanning
Hampton River adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University.
In 1984, Hampton University dedicated a Booker T. Washington Memorial on
campus near the historic
Emancipation Oak, establishing, in the words of the University, "a
relationship between one of America's great educators and social activists,
and the symbol of Black achievement in education."
Numerous high schools and
middle schools across the United States have been named after Booker T.
At the center of the campus at Tuskegee University, the Booker T.
Washington Monument, called "Lifting the Veil," was dedicated in 1922. The
inscription at its base reads:
- "He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to
progress through education and industry."
Molefi Kete Asante listed Booker T. Washington on his list of
100 Greatest African Americans.