Booker T. Washington (1856 – November 14, 1915) was a leading African-American leader and intellectual of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He founded an educational establishment in Alabama and promoted a philosophy of economic self-reliance and self-improvement for the black population. Born a slave, Washington grew up in a deeply racist and segregated society. Due to the deeply entrenched hostility, he felt it was necessary to accept segregated laws and concentrate on economic and cultural self-improvement. However, his conservative stance on race relations became increasingly criticised by a new generation of civil rights leaders who wished to be more assertive in challenging segregation and the Jim Crow Laws.
Washington is widely acknowledged for playing a significant role in promoting education for African-Americans and slowly raising the hopes and aspirations of an oppressed people.
Washington was born into slavery in 1856 in Virginia. In the early days, he experienced real hardship growing up on the slave plantation. His mother named him Taliaferro but this soon fell out of use, and he was known just as Booker. In 1865, Washington was nine years old when the American civil war ended. He remembered vividly the day of emancipation when he learnt that all the slaves would be freed and they could go as they pleased. After emancipation, his mother took him to West Virginia where he worked in a salt furnace and later as a servant for a white family. This was a formative experience as he learnt self-discipline and practical skills.
He also began to teach himself the basics of reading and writing; learning what he could. Later he had the opportunity of being educated at one of the first schools for freed slaves – the Hampton Institute. Washington excelled at his studies and on 4 July 1881, he helped to found the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee was a private university/technical college dedicated to offering educational opportunities for African-Americans. Washington emphasised not just academic and vocational subjects, but an all-round moral and religious education and a firm belief in the potential for African-Americans to improve their situation through hard work and self-reliance.
“Nothing ever comes to me, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”
“I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.”
– Up from Slavery
Washington held the position of President of Tuskegee University from 1881 to 1915.
In the late nineteenth century, although freed from slavery, African-Americans experienced severe discrimination through the notorious Jim Crow laws which legalised segregation along racial lines. With blacks effectively disenfranchised, opportunities were limited and there was a real threat of violence and lynching without recourse to justice. Against this backdrop, Washington rose to national prominence with his Atlanta Address of 1895. The Atlanta Address effectively accepted segregation and white political rule but asked for basic education and due process in law. Washington eschewed the civil rights demand for equality and education but sought to encourage charitable funds to support black education.
This pragmatic approach drew support from northern liberals and many from within the black community. Washington hoped that if black communities could demonstrate hard work, industry and thrift, it would be easier to gain sympathy for more political freedoms in the future.
“Of all forms of slavery there is none that is so harmful and degrading as that form of slavery which tempts one human being to hate another by reason of his race or color. One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.” – Address to NY Republican Club (12 February 1909)
Washington was affiliated to the Republican Party and served as an adviser to President’s Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. Washington’s piece-meal approach helped widen educational opportunities for the black population, but the pace of social and political change frustrated younger civil rights leaders who saw southern white politicians unwilling to make any real concessions but tolerated lynching and other inequities.
In the early 1900s, Washington was challenged by W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois felt Washington was too accommodating to the status quo, and instead, he advocated campaigns for political representation and the opposition to separation along racial lines. Washington was concerned that as a minority population without proper legal support, confrontation would be fruitless and only lead to greater suffering. In 1905, the Niagara Movement issued a statement breaking with Washington’s perceived accommodation and pursued a more radical action to end injustice. This led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
However, away from the public glare, he did offer support to legal challenges against segregation and supporting political enfranchisement for blacks. Washington was in a difficult position of seeking to retain support from establishment figures who liked his moderation, while also sympathising with more radical challenges to injustice.
Washington was a national figure and the leading figurehead of the African-American community. He developed friendships with white philanthropists and was successful in raising money to support schools and educational initiatives. Washington increasingly focused on training teachers who would be able to in turn teach in their rural communities. With financial support from Julius Rosenwald, he helped support and found more than 5,000 schools in the south.
Washington also founded the National Negro Business League – a national network to support black businessmen. He received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901
In 1901, he published his second autobiography “Up from Slavery.” It emphasises how Washington rose from slavery to be a ‘self-made’ man through his own hard work and diligence and also with the support of sympathetic teachers and philanthropists. The book became a best-seller – touching on the ideals of the American Dream – the idea everyone has the opportunity to rise in society – despite the most difficult barriers. Washington’s high profile and support of wealthy white philanthropists gave him substantial power and influence within the African-American community. He was criticised for putting down alternative viewpoints and promoting his own agenda. However, this kind of criticism is inevitable given the influence and political nature of his lobbying and support.
Washington married Fannie Smith in 1882, but she passed away in 1884 shortly after giving birth to Portia. Two years later he married Olivia A. Davidson, and the couple had another two children, but again tragedy struck when she died in 1889. His third wife Margaret James Murray helped bring up his three children and outlived Washington.
Washington travelled widely throughout the US and frequently gave well-received talks. He worked very hard and this contributed to high blood pressure and stress. In 1915, he fell ill and was diagnosed with Bight’s disease. The doctors gave him only a few days to live, and he chose to return to Tuskegee where he passed away at the age of 59.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Booker T. Washington”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 20 July 2018.
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