Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery and worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (a historically black college now called Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary, now called Virginia Union University. In 1881, Washington became the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute. He led this institution for the rest of his life, adding the curriculum and facilities on the campus and gaining support among many African-Americans with help from white philanthropists and politicians.
In 1895, his Atlanta Address received national attention; this agreement between Southern blacks and whites stated that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites ensured that blacks would receive basic education and due process in law. Many supported this agreement, while others like the NAACP and W.E.B. Du Bois criticized Washington, feeling that African-Americans should instead engage in a struggle for civil rights.
Washington died at age 59 from congestive heart failure aggravated from overwork. His legacy - education for the blacks in the South - continued to grow and expand across America.
Lived: April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915
Why He Matters
Washington believed that to overcome the racism that African-Americans experienced in the South, cooperation with supportive whites was essential. This belief and his connections with influential white politicians and philanthropists, enabled him to enlist moral and financial support to build and sustain education for African-Americans.
Known simply as “Booker”, Washington originally did not have a middle or surname. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he took his stepfather’s name; his mother also told him the original name she gave him was “Booker Taliaferro” -- hence Booker T. Washington.
He painstakingly taught himself how to read to overcome his childhood illiteracy.
Paid for his own studies at the Hampton Institute by working in salt furnaces and the coal mines in West Virginia.
Often was asked for political advice by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Formed the National Negro Business League, which encouraged entrepreneurship among black businessmen, which contributed to the Progressive Era.
Wrote 14 books, including his autobiography “Up From Slavery”, which is still widely read.
Was known as the “Wizard of Tuskegee” because of his highly developed political skills, and also his creation of a nationwide political machine based on the black middle class, white philanthropy, and Republican Party support.
Was the first African-American invited to the White House by Theodore Roosevelt (which caused an outrage at the time among many white supremacists).
The first African-American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp in 1940.
Leaving a Legacy
Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Speech of 1895 emphasized education and literacy after the Civil War, calling upon blacks to develop their farming, industrial and entrepreneurial skills, to enable their transition from slavery to a free people.
Many schools and memorials across the United States have been named after Booker T. Washington.
At the end of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, defeated Republican candidate John McCain pointed out the evident progress that his country had made when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States, while recalling the outrage of Washington’s visit to the White House only a century before.