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Booker T. Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) – Educator, Author, Political Activist
By Angelique Brown
“No man, who continues to add something to the material, intellectual and moral well-being of the place in which he lives, is left long without proper reward.” – Booker T. Washington
Introduction: Some consider Booker T. Washington, the African American educator, author, orator, and political leader, to be the most well known Black man in the United States from the late 1890’s to 1915. His conservative views, political savvy, and ability to raise significant amounts of money from powerful White people to support his cause allowed him to attack institutional racist policies. Because, during his period of prominence, a large portion of his social justice work against racism was done behind the scenes he was viewed as an accomodationist more than a public activist. From the vantage point of the current day, his contributions to African Americans and civil rights are now more appreciated.
Not Defined by Slavery
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery to a slave mother and white father, in rural southwestern Virginia. Following emancipation, he worked in a variety of manual labor jobs including the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia before making his way to the Norfolk area in search of an education. His determination to get an education propelled him through Hampton University and Virginia Union University. After graduating, he returned to Hampton as a teacher, and then in 1881 he was named as the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
A prominent and influential leader and educator, Booker T. Washington’s is widely known for his commitment to Tuskegee Institute, which became a testament to his life’s work. It was in 1881 that Washington was selected to lead the newly established normal school for blacks at Tuskegee. At that time it consisted of two small, converted buildings, no equipment, and very little money. At the time of Washington’s death 34 years later, it had more than 100 well-equipped buildings, approximately 1,500 students, a faculty of nearly 200 teaching 38 trades and professions, and an endowment of approximately $2,000,000.
Acceptance of Segregation
One of the defining moments in Washington’s life, and in American history, took place on September 18, 1895 when he delivered an address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. It was here that Washington stated publicly that social segregation would be accepted as long as Whites would allow Blacks to progress economically, have the opportunity to become educated, and receive justice through the courts. In the address he stated,
“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”
His reasoning was that through the acceptance of segregation and discrimination, Blacks would eventually gain wealth and culture and would then win acceptance and respect from the White power structure. He stated that this wealth and culture would be the result of Blacks being educated in agriculture and industry rather than in other fields.
Although widely accepted among the middle and working-class Blacks of that time, Washington drew much criticism from the Black intellectual community who called him an accomodationist. The NAACP and W.E. B. DuBois were very outspoken in their criticism of Washington. They called for protest of oppression and demanded that actions be taken that would ensure the advancement of civil rights for Blacks. Although he publicly supported segregation, he used the influence and money from powerful, Northern Whites to fund cases that challenged segregation.
Using Connections to Serve the Community
With his public acceptance of segregation, Washington continued to gain popularity and influence among both Whites and Blacks. He associated with some of the wealthiest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of his time including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, William Howard Taft, and William Henry Baldwin. These powerful men viewed Washington as a spokesman for the Black community. Through these connections, Washington was able to raise large sums of money that funded a number of small schools as well as funds that provided the endowment to Tuskegee Institute.
In 1900 Washington founded the National Negro Business League. The mission of the organization was “to promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro.” Formally incorporated in New York in 1901, the same year that Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery was published, the organization established 320 chapters across the country. It was renamed and reincorporated in 1966 in Washington, D.C. as the National Business League. The organization included Black small business owners, doctors, famers, and other professionals. The purpose of the organization was to ensure that economic development was at the forefront of African-Americans’ fight for equality in the United States.
During his era, Booker T. Washington exerted much power on behalf of the African American community. Though many Black intellectuals disagreed with him and his tactics, his way of thinking appealed to many middle and working class Blacks. His connections with the prominent White Americans allowed him to serve as a conduit for funds that served African American community.
Full text of the Atlanta address:
Full text of the biography “Up from Slavery”
University of Illinois Press – BTW Papers: