Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American political leader, educator and author. He was one of the dominant figures in African American history in the United States from 1890 to 1915.
Washington was born into slavery to a slave owner [father], and a slave [mother] in Franklin County, Virginia. He eventually learned to read and write while working at manual labor jobs. At the age of sixteen, he went to Hampton, Virginia to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, to train as a teacher. In 1881, he was named as the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He was granted an honorary Masters of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary Doctorate degree from Dartmouth College in 1901. Washington played a very prominent role in black politics.
Washington received national prominence for his famous Atlanta Address of 1895, attracting the attention of politicians and the public as a popular spokesperson for African American citizens. Although labeled by some activists as an "accommodator"; his work, in cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists, helped raise funds to establish and operate hundreds of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of black persons throughout the South.
In addition to the substantial contributions in the field of education, Dr. 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.
Booker T. Washington was born April 5, 1856 on the Burroughs farm at the community of Hale's Ford, Virginia. His mother Jane was a cook and his father was a white man from a nearby farm. Even though his last name was Washington, the "T" in his slave name stood for Taliaferro, his master's name. He recalled emancipation in early 1865: [Up from Slavery 19-21]
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 and his brother John and his sister, Amanda, moved to Malden in Kanawha County, West Virginia with their mother to join his stepfather. 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. However, soon he became employed as a houseboy for Viola (née Knapp) Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, who owned the salt-furnace and coal mine. Many other houseboys had failed to satisfy the demanding and methodical Mrs. Ruffner, but Booker's diligence and attention to detail met her standards. Encouraged to do so by Mrs. Ruffner, when he could, young Booker attended school and learned to read and to write. And soon, he sought even 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 get a place there by working to pay their way. The normal school at Hampton was founded for the purpose of training black teachers and had been largely funded by church groups and individuals such as William Jackson Palmer, a Quaker, among others. In many ways he was back where he had started, earning a living through menial tasks, but his time at Hampton led him away from a life of labor. 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.
Former slave Lewis Adams and other organizers of a new normal school in Tuskegee, Alabama sought a bright and energetic leader for their new school. They at first anticipated employing a white administrator, but instead, they found the desired qualities in 25 year-old Booker T. Washington. Upon the strong recommendation of Hampton University founder Samuel C. Armstrong, Washington became the first principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which opened on July 4, 1881. The new school later developed into the Tuskegee Institute and is now Tuskegee University.
Tuskegee provided an academic education and instruction for teachers, but placed more emphasis on providing young black boys with practical skills such as carpentry and masonry. The institute illustrates Washington's aspirations for his race. His theory was, that by providing these skills, African Americans would play their part in society and this would lead to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that African Americans would eventually gain full Civil Rights by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens. He 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.
Washington was married three times. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, he gave all three of his wives enormous credit for their work at Tuskegee and was emphatic that he would not have been successful without them.
Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town located eight miles upriver from Charleston where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen (and maintained ties throughout his later life). Washington and Smith were married in the summer of 1882. They had one child, Portia M. Washington. Fannie died in May 1884.
He next wed Olivia A. Davidson in 1885. Davidson was born in Ohio, spent time teaching in Mississippi and Tennessee and received her education at Hampton Institute and the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham. Washington met Davidson at Tuskegee, where she had come to teach. She later became the assistant principal there. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before she died in 1889.
His third marriage took place in 1893 to Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and was a graduate of Fisk University. They had no children together. Murray outlived Washington and died in 1925.
Active in politics, Booker T. Washington was routinely consulted by Republican Congressmen and Presidents about the appointment of African Americans to political positions. 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.
His 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, given at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, sparked a controversy wherein he was cast as an accommodationist among those who heeded Frederick Douglass' call to "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate" for social change. A public debate soon began between those such as Washington, who valued the so-called "industrial" education and those who, like W.E.B. DuBois, supported the idea of a "classical" education among African-Americans (top 10% theory). Both sides sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-Civil War African-American community. Washington's advice to African-Americans to "compromise" and accept segregation, incensed other activists of the time, such as DuBois, who labeled him "The Great Accommodator". It should be noted, however, that despite not condemning Jim Crow laws and the inhumanity of lynching publicly, Washington privately contributed funds for legal challenges against segregation and disfranchisement, such as his support in the case of Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in 1903.
Although early in DuBois' career the two were friends and respected each other considerably, their political views diverged to the extent that after Washington's death, DuBois stated "In stern justice, we must lay on the soul of this man a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land."
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 Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, and Julius Rosenwald, to whom he made the need for better educational facilities well-known. As a result, countless small schools were established through his efforts, in programs that continued many years after his death.
A representative case of an exceptional relationship was his friendship with millionaire industrialist Henry H. Rogers (1840-1909), a self-made man who had risen from a modest working-class family to become a principal of Standard Oil, and 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 office, his Fairhaven, Massachusetts summer home, and aboard his steam yacht Kanawha, the true depth and scope of their relationship was not publicly revealed until after Roger's sudden death of an a apoplectic stroke in May 1909.
In June 1909, a few weeks later, Dr. 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 Dr. Washington rode in Rogers' personal rail 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.
Dr. Washington told his audiences that his goal of the trip as planned with Rogers was to improve relations between the races and economic conditions for African Americans along the route of the new railway, which touched many previously isolated communities in the southern portions of Virginia and West Virginia which had been passed by when earlier railroads were built.
On this trip, Dr. Washington also publicly revealed for the first time 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 with 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.
$1,000,000 was entrusted to him by Anna T. Jeanes (1822-1907) of Philadelphia in 1907. She hoped to construct some elementary schools for Negro children 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 Dr. Washington found common ground. By 1908, Rosenwald, son of an immigrant clothier, had risen to become president of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago. Rosenwald was one of a group of Jewish-American businessmen who felt 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 Dr. 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 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.
In an effort to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of African Americans, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900.
When his 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.
The hard-driving Washington finally collapsed in Tuskegee, Alabama due to a lifetime of overwork and died soon after in a hospital, on November 14, 1915. In March of 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. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.
For his contributions to American society, Dr. Washington was granted an honorary Masters of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary Doctorate degree from Dartmouth College in 1901. 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. On April 7, 1940, Dr. Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. On April 5, 1956, the house where he was born in Franklin County, Virginia was designated as the Booker T. Washington National Monument. Additionally, numerous schools across the United States are named for him (M.S.54). A state park in Chattanooga, TN names in his honor, as is a bridge adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University, across the Hampton River in Hampton, Virginia. Robert Russa Moton, head of Tuskegee University after Booker T. Washington's death, had two African Americans aviators do an air tour, and afterward the plane was christened the Booker T. Washington.
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:
Numerous US high schools and middle schools are named after Booker T. Washington.