Booker T. Washington

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Booker T. Washington

Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) was the most important political and educational leader of the African-American community 1890-1915. He was the most important black leader of the Progressive Era, and his dedication to efficiency set the goals for the black community. He is most famous for his autobiography, Up from Slavery, his leadership of black conservative business and religious leaders, his founding of the Tuskegee Institute, and his emphasis on self-help and education as the cure for poverty and the second class status of blacks in America.

His "Atlanta Exposition" speech of 1895 appealed to middle class whites across the South, asking them to give blacks a chance to work and develop separately, while implicitly accepting Jim Crow and promising not to demand the vote. White leaders across the North, from politicians to industrialists, from philanthropists to churchmen, enthusiastically supported Washington, as did most middle class blacks and some white Southern leaders. Washington built a personal organization, over which he exerted very tight control, that linked like-minded black leaders throughout the nation and in effect spoke for Black America and worked behind the scenes to lessen the impact of segregation. His network fell apart after his death. Meanwhile, a more militant northern group, led by W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP rejected Washington's self-help and demanded political activism, referring to the speech dismissively as "The Atlanta Compromise". 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 is held in high regard by conservatives, both white and black. As C. Vann Woodward concluded, "The businessman's gospel of free enterprise, competition, and laissez faire never had a more loyal exponent."[1]


Washington was born into slavery to a white father and a black slave mother on a rural farm in southwestern Franklin County, Virginia. His mother Jane was a black slave who worked as a cook and his father was a white man who owned a nearby farm. Under the laws of slavery, his mother's slave status made baby Booker a slave. He recalled how emancipation arrived in early 1865:[2]

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 mom, 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, at the age of nine, Booker moved to Kanawha County, West Virginia with his mother, brother and sister to join his stepfather, whose last name was Washington.[3] When he could, young Booker attended school and learned to read and to write. West Virginia was more prosperous and tolerant.[4]

Leaving home at sixteen, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Tuition was low and school jobs were available so Washington paid his own way. The normal school (teachers college) at Hampton was founded for the purpose of training black teachers and had been largely funded by church groups From 1878 to 1879 he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and returned to teach at Hampton. Soon, Hampton officials recommended him to become the first principal of a similar school being founded in Alabama.[5]

Atlanta Compromise

Washington's 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, given in Atlanta, Georgia, was widely welcomed in the African American community and among liberal whites North and South. At a time of rapidly escalating racism he tried to defuse the hostility. Speaking for the African Americans of the entire South, he accepted Jim Crow, segregation and disfranchisement in return for black freedom in economic, religious and cultural affairs. He was supported by W.E.B. DuBois, who later became a bitter enemy.

Blacks were solidly Republican, but after 1890 many lost the vote in the deep South (but continued to vote in border and northern states). Washington emerged as their spokesman and was routinely consulted by Republican national about the appointment of African Americans to political positions throughout the nation. He worked and socialized with many white politicians and notables. He argued that the surest way for blacks eventually to gain equal rights was to demonstrate patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness and said that these were the key to improved conditions for African Americans in the United States and that they could not expect too much, having only just been granted emancipation.[6]


Washington was the dominant figure in the African American community from 1890 to 1915, especially after he achieved prominence for his Atlanta Compromise of 1895. White leaders in politics and philanthropy recognized him as the spokesperson for African American citizens. Representing the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, he was credible when speaking publicly and seeking educational improvements for those freedmen who had remained in the New South in an uneasy second-class relationship with whites under the "Jim Crow" system of segregated schools and jobs. He built his leadership of the African American community nationwide through a network of core supporters, including black educators, ministers, editors and businessmen. He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, and was awarded honorary degrees. Critics called his network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine."

Educational philosophy

Washington valued the "industrial" education oriented toward actual jobs available to the majority of African Americans at the time and DuBois demanded a "classical" (liberal arts) education among an elite he called "The Talented Tenth."

Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work - it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. [1]

Both sides sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-Civil War African-American community. While not publicly attacking Jim Crow Laws, Washington privately contributed funds for legal challenges against legal segregation and disfranchisement, such as his secret support in the case of Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in 1903.[7]

Money for schools

Washington was a genius at fund raising from rich whites such as Standard Oil magnate Henry H. Rogers and Sears, Roebuck and Company president Julius Rosenwald. To upgrade the southern schools open to blacks Washington solicited millions of dollars, often using matching funds that stimulated local contributions. He established and operated over 5,000 schools and supporting resources throughout the South. This work was a major part of his legacy and was continued (and expanded through the Rosenwald Fund and others) for many years after Washington's death in 1915.[8]

Improving race relations

Washington was the central figure in improving the overall friendship and working relationship between the races in the United States, and heading off the "herrenvolk" racism of lower class whites expressed through lynching and led by Ben Tillman. His powerful autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901) was widely read among blacks and sympathetic whites. It told the story of his own emancipation, education, and successful career to inspire southern blacks who had been denied opportunity for education and self-improvement. He carried the same theme forward in The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (1909). Washington, in contrast to the civil rights activists like DuBois and the NAACP, deemphasized politics in favor of the importance of cultivating middle class habits of skill, industry, thrift and character so that blacks, having prepared themselves educationally and culturally for the responsibility, would be accepted by liberal whites as meriting civil rights.

Up from Slavery, invitation to the White House

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.[9]

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. Washington in 1901 was the first African-American ever invited to the White House as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt – white Southerners complained loudly, although Washington remained as an advisor to Roosevelt.[10]

Washington aggressively fought off competition, such as the Niagara Movement, formed in 1905 and practically defunct by 1909. In 1909, Du Bois and other blacks from the Niagara movement joined with a group of white liberals in creating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which proved a more formidable opponent of Washington, since it built a national counter-network of local chapters. The NAACP demanded a stronger, more public line on civil rights protests. After being ridiculed as "The Great Accommodator" by DuBois, Washington shot back 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. Although he did some aggressive civil rights work secretively, such as funding court cases,[11] he seemed to truly believe in skillful accommodation to many of the social realities of the age of segregation.[12]


Washington's health deteriorated after 1910; he collapsed on a trip to New York and was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died at the age of 59. The cause of death was unclear, probably from nervous exhaustion and arteriosclerosis.[13] He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.

At his death Tuskegee's endowment exceeded $1.5 million, by far the largest for any black school. He was succeeded as president by Robert Russa Moton. He was memorialized in the names of many segregated public schools for blacks.


"There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs." [14]

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  1. C. Vann Woodward, The Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951) p. 366
  2. Up from Slavery 19-21
  3. The "T" in his name stood for Taliaferro, his owner's name.
  4. Harlan (1972)
  5. Harlan (1972)
  6. Harlan (1972)
  7. Harlan (1971)
  8. Anderson (1998)
  9. See
  10. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, "A Patriot's History of the United States" (2007)
  11. Meier 1957
  12. Harlan (1983) p. 359
  13. The question of syphilis is discussed in Harlan 2:451-55
  14. THE FINANCIAL COLLAPSE OF 2008 WAS NO ACCIDENT, Political Pistachio, July 18, 2016