BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

1856-1915

Booker T. Washington,one of the most politically influential men to emerge from the Reconstruction, was bom into slavery, which was abolished when he was nine years old. At the end of the Civil War, his mother moved him and his family to Malden, West Virginia.

Washington began working at the salt mines and taught himself to read and write before setting out for Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute in Virginia. An exceptional intellect, Washington rose to top of his class and grad¬ uated with honors.

Washington showed early promise as a leader and a scholar. When the 1881 Alaba¬ ma legislature decided to train black teachers at a new school in Tuskegee, the head of Hampton Normal recommended that Wash¬ ington develop its programs.

As the Tuskegee Institute’s new president, Wash¬ ington went to work building a leading insti¬ tution out of an abandoned plantation in Alabama. His students were the architects and carpenters of classrooms, dormitories, a church, and a curriculum that included everything from farming to printing.

Tuskegee became the center of a self- motivation movement, and Washington’s sphere of influence grew to include men like US presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Washington believed that a man must take responsibili¬ ty for raising his own station in life.

To sup¬ port Tuskegee, he befriended many wealthy businessmen and many white leaders so that he might gain their support and their financial backing. This tactic led to his rep¬ utation as an accomodationist, someone who would gracious¬ ly befriend the same men who had sup¬ ported slavery.

This was one of the controversial sides of Washington’s ideolo¬ gy, though with the help ofwhite business people, Washington made it possible for African-Americans to receive the education that was critical to their survival after Reconstruction.

His diplomacy was a tool for building a bridge between the separate communities, and it was the reason he was consistently invited to advise presidents and business leaders. It was also the reason that rivalries sprang up between himself and men like W.E.B. Du Bois (see no. 32).

Credited with the monumental success of Tuskegee, Washington is also known for the success of the National Negro Business League, which he founded in 1892 to sup¬ port black-owned businesses.

He is also remembered for the Atlanta Compromise address, which he gave in 1895, stating that “The enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing.” His story is detailed in his autobi¬ ography, Up From Slavery, which was not only a best seller in America, but an internationally popular text.

Though his politics were hotly debated during his life and after, there is no denying that Booker T. Washington was one of the most active supporters of African-American education. His ideals were based principally on the self-respect and the infinite potential of independent men and women.