Booker T. Washington was an important educator and driving force behind the growth of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School which is now the Tuskegee University (www.nps.gov). He was also a man who has a few beliefs and views that angered the black activist of his day. Despite his controversial views, he became an icon for the black community. He is described as a man who “lifted the veil of ignorance” (www.nps.gov).
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born April 5, 1856 on a small farm plantation in Piedmont Franklin County, Virginia. In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, he would describe his birthplace as a typical log cabin measuring 14’ by 16’. His mother was the plantation cook (www.nps.gov). After the Civil War, his family moved to Malden, West Virginia where he found jobs working in the salt mines as well as a houseboy for Mrs. Viola Ruffner, the wife of a local salt mine owner. She took an interest in Booker and his desire for an education. He would attend classes at a local school for an hour a day (www.biography.com).
His formal education would begin at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia where he worked as a janitor in order to pay for his room and board and the director Samuel Armstrong found a white benefactor to pay for his tuition (www.tuskegee.edu). He would graduate with honors in 1875 and return to Malden to teach. He soon would be approached to develop the Tuskegee Institute. He would become its first principal and where he would teach economic success and working hard in order to obtain “financial independence and cultural advancement” which would lead to eventually acceptance and respect from the white community (www.biography.com). He believed that the educational system should emphasizes practical skills and self-help (www.tuskegee.edu). He believed that subordination to whites was a necessary until African Americans could prove worthy of full economic and political rights (www.biography.com). This belief would anger his critics especially W.E.B. DuBois.
In 1895, Washington would give a speech in which he would explain his beliefs which is known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” In this speech, he stated that the African American communities should accepted “disenfranchisement and social segregation” as long as they would allowed economic progress, educational opportunities and judicial justice (www.biography.com). His statements would create a firestorm of criticism especially from DuBois who would criticize Washington for advocating white superiority and not demanding equality. Washington’s statement surprised me as I researched his life. His statements came at a time when there was severe segregation in the country especially the South. The African Americans would being systematically excluded from the political process through black codes and the Jim Crow laws.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt would invite Washington to the White House. The first African American to be honored with an invite. Roosevelt and later President Taft would ask for his advisement on racial matters. Quite possibly because Washington accepted racial subservience (www.biography.com). Although he openly supported racial subservience, he would secretly finance court cases challenging segregation. By 1913, he lost much of his influence especially in Washington as the Wilson Administration had no interest in racial integration and African American equality. He would remain as the head of the Tuskegee Institute until his death on November 14, 1915 at the age of 59.
Biography website www.biography.com
Tuskegee University www.tuskegee.edu
U.S. National Park Service www.nps.gov