Born into slavery, Booker T Washington was one of the leading African American figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1881, on the recommendation of his mentor Samuel Armstrong, a former Union Army general, Washington was placed in charge of the Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute. He received $2,000 from the government for salaries, but there was no campus, buildings, students or staff. When Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee Institute had 1,500 students enrolled, 250 faculty members and the largest endowment for any African American Institution, not bad for someone who was born a slave. His bestselling, autobiography, Up From Slavery published in 1901, added a substantial amount of funds to Tuskegee. Today, Tuskegee Institute is known as Tuskegee University.
Name: Booker T. Washington
Birth Date: April 1856 – November 1915
Job Functions: American Educator, Author, Speaker, Leader
Known For: The first African American to dine at the White House, Up From Slavery, and the first teacher at Tuskegee Institute
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery, his mother was a slave and his father was a white man whose identity he never knew. Washington always had a hunger for learning. While he was a houseboy for Mrs. Ruffner – wife of a mine owner where Washington used to work in – he was fascinated by all the books he saw in the house. She taught him how to read and constantly encouraged him. Washington was determined to get a higher education.
He learned about Hampton Agricultural Institute – an institute focused on industrial and agricultural training as well as teaching – which was founded in 1868 by Samuel Armstrong, a former Union Army general. Armstrong believed that freed slaves were entitled to an education in manual skills, to allow them to take care of themselves. The school allowed African Americans to finance their education by working at the school. In 1872, Washington walked a great distance to attend Hampton Agricultural Institute in Virginia from where he was living in West Virginia.
When he arrived at Hampton Agricultural Institute, Washington begged to attend the school and offered to work to pay his way. They asked him to do some cleaning to examine the quality of his work, and he was given the position of janitor. Armstrong believed in good hygiene, strong morals and self-discipline and became a mentor to Washington.
After Washington graduated in 1875, he taught in Madden, West Virginia, and later taught at Hampton Institute. In 1881, Washington was at the right place at the right time. A new school, Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute was opened in Alabama, and Samuel Armstrong recommended that Washington be placed in charge as principal of the new school. He followed the model of Hampton Agricultural Institute and placed an emphasis on learning practical skills, and manual trades such as farming, carpentry, brick-making, shoemaking, printing, mechanics, cooking and teaching. He also espoused discipline, cleanliness and thrift among his students. Female students learned arts such as sewing and canning.
Booker T. Washington
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Since all that Washington was given was $2,000 from the government to pay salaries, he had to find students, teachers, and build a school. Not daunted by this challenge, Washington traveled across the United States speaking to both blacks and whites to raise funds for building and equipment. During his travels, he emphasized the importance and need for African Americans to become economically self sufficient before they seek political rights. He was very well received especially by those who were for segregation. The first students of Tuskegee Institute attended classes at the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and when classes were dismissed, they made bricks, which they used to build the school themselves. They grew their own produce to feed themselves.
Washington gained prominence as a speaker and was often invited to give speeches. In 1895, he addressed an all-white audience at the Cotton States and the International Exposition in Atlanta and gave a speech that is now dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise” (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/39/). In this infamous speech, Washington told his audience that if African Americans improved themselves in economic and educational matters, they would me more law abiding citizens and be less resentful of whites. He denounced political protests by blacks, and recommended economic advancement as a more effective solution than political demonstrations to racial discord.
Not everyone was pleased with Washington’s conservative views. Some African Americans, whites, as well as leaders, felt that civil rights should not be compromised, and did not agree with Washington’s emphasis on the trades – some African Americans wanted to become professionals. This opposition led to the creation of the Niagara Movement in 1905, which was the precursor to the National Association for the advancement of Colored People in 1910.
Despite the criticisms, Washington continued on his path, preaching his message of accommodation. He gained power and prominence and was an advisor to Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft on political appointments of African Americans and race relations. Washington urged his students to become capitalists, and he put his teachings to practice by establishing the National Negro Business League. It was at one of the National Negro Business League’s Conventions that Madam C J Walker spoke up from the floor about her journey to becoming a business woman after Booker T. Washington ignored her attempts to meet with him. The next year, he allowed Madam Walker to speak at his convention.
Booker T. Washington advocated for moral development and economic self-sufficiency for African Americans who now had to take care of themselves after being freed from slavery. He wanted African Americans to become capitalists, to own their own homes and businesses, to be apolitical and create self-sufficient communities.
Booker T. Washington’s Steps to Success
- Washington worked hard all his life to attain success – he worked at the salt furnaces, the coal mines while he pursued his education (this was before he attended Hampton Institute). He was also a house servant which was less gruelling than the other jobs.
- He traveled the country to raise funds for Tuskegee Institute, speaking to both blacks and whites.
- Students and faculty of Tuskegee Institute worked together to plant crops and make bricks for the new buildings.
- Washington was skilled at fundraising and possessed business savvy. He developed strong relationships with philanthropists: Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Henry H. Rogers and Julius Rosenwald.
- He built a network of social and financial relationships that eventually took him to the pinnacle of national and international recognition.
- He used the “Tuskegee Machine” a network of connections to media, business, and politics to increase his power and to discredit and weaken his black opponents and white supporters who were for civil rights.
- He secured funds for African American institutions from Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
- He wrote his autobiography, Up From Slavery, which was a groundbreaking and inspiring book that allowed him to raise funds for Tuskegee.
- After a bad experience with his ghostwriter for his first autobiography, The Story of My Life, Washington hired white Boston journalist, Max Bennett Thrasher with whom he worked closely with and even wrote several section himself.
- Max Bennett Thrasher also became head of publicity for Tuskegee.
- By 1888, that’s seven years later, Tuskegee expanded to cover 549 acres and have over 400 students. By 1915, the year Washington died, the school had 1500 students and the largest endowment of any black institution.
Many may not have liked Booker T. Washington’s business philosophy, and his “politics of accommodation.” However, they cannot deny the positive impact he had on the lives of African Americans. He used the money from his biography Up From Slavery to fund Tuskegee Institute to ensure that it had a solid financial base. Up From Slavery was first serialized in the periodical, Outlook, which had over 100,000 readers, from November 3, 1900 to February 23, 1901 and was published into book form in March 1901 by Doubleday.
In some accounts of Booker T. Washington’s life, they report that he later realized that accommodation wasn’t enough for African Americans to attain their proper place in society. Instead of speaking out about the change in his beliefs, he instead quietly gave money to support the causes that were against “accommodationism.”
Booker T. Washington National Monument (http://www.nps.gov/bowa/index.htm)
Booker T. Washington (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_people_booker.html)
Booker T. Washington – YouTube video (http://youtu.be/_Hsd55AK53U)
The Booker T Washington Papers http://www.historycooperative.org/btw/volumes.html (University of Illinois Press)
Booker T. Washington’s West Virginia Boyhood http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh32-1.html
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Booked for Mentoring: Book Review – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
American History Through Literature, 1870 – 1920
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, Second Edition
American Decades Primary Sources, 1900 – 1909
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West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
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Video Credit: Booker T. Washington Uploaded by joroarkenglish on Oct 28, 2008