Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is probably best known as the founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Macon County. He was a leading voice for industrial-vocational education and a measured approach toward gaining civil rights for blacks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many contemporary African American civil rights leaders, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, critiqued his emphasis on industrial education over liberal arts education and called for immediate access to political participation, accusing Washington of being an accommodationist. However, Washington secretly supported civil rights causes. He covertly provided funding for organizations that fought to end lynching. When southern states began to disband colored militia in 1905, he asked Secretary of War William Howard Taft to intervene, and when President Roosevelt dismissed colored troops in Brownsville, Texas, after a skirmish with town residents, Washington lobbied him to reverse his decision. Washington's leadership at Tuskegee Institute, however, had a lasting impact on African American education, and the university continues to be a leading institution of higher learning.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born in Hale's Ford, Franklin County, Virginia, on a small tobacco farm owned by James Burroughs, near present-day Smith Mountain Lake. Because Washington was enslaved, and few birth records were kept for enslaved workers, the exact date of his birth is unknown. Some sources list it as April 5, 1856. Washington was known only as Booker T. as a child, with T being the initial of his slave owner's surname. The Taliaferros were a prominent white family in the Commonwealth of Virginia that traced back to the seventeenth century and was one of the earliest families to settle in Virginia. He chose the last name Washington at age ten. He lived with his mother Jane, who was the plantation's cook, and his brother John and sister Amanda in a tiny, one-room log cabin. The cramped living quarters had a dirt floor, glassless windows, and served as both living and sleeping quarters as well as the plantation kitchen.
One of Washington's duties as a child was to carry the Burroughs daughter's books as she walked to school. After the books were safely delivered, Washington often lingered around the schoolhouse door to get a glimpse of those being formally educated. He watched the boys and girls in the schoolhouse and longed for the opportunity to receive such an education. Because the enslaved were viewed as property and were sold at will by their masters, Washington did not know his entire family. In fact, Washington did not even know his father's name, although it was widely speculated that his biological father was a white plantation owner. In 1860, Washington's mother married Washington Ferguson, an enslaved man from a nearby plantation who later escaped to West Virginia. Although the family only saw him once a year at Christmas time, Washington considered the man his stepfather. After gaining their freedom in 1865, Washington and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, near Charleston, where Ferguson was working in a salt mine. Booker T. and John soon began working as salt packers in the town.
Washington was able to gain a primary education in Tinkersville, a small town outside Malden, by working in the mornings and evenings and attending school during the day. In his early teens, he worked for a wealthy family that encouraged his pursuit of education. In 1872, at age 16, Washington entered Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. He arrived at the school with only 50 cents and was asked to sweep a floor to prove that he would work for his education. Washington excelled as a student and graduated in 1875, returning to Tinkersville to teach at a black school there until 1878. After brief study in theology in Washington, D.C., he was recruited by Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to teach Native Americans and then to lead the school's night division. Washington became such an exemplary teacher and speaker that General Samuel C. Armstrong, the head and founder of Hampton Institute, recommended him to a group of education advocates led by Lewis Adams, George Campbell, and a group of former slaves from Alabama who were planning to establish a school for African Americans in Macon County.
On July 4, 1881, Washington and the others group opened the Tuskegee Normal Industrial School although at the time the school had no land, no buildings, and only a small state appropriation of $2,000 a year for faculty salaries. Washington borrowed money to buy a dilapidated plantation and employed students to erect buildings in exchange for tuition, while holding classes in an African Methodist Episcopal church. Together, Washington and his students built Tuskegee Institute from the ground up, and the first class of 30 students graduated in 1885. Under Washington's direction, students produced their own food and provided for most of their own basic necessities, including building a kiln and making bricks for new structures. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills that they could share with other black communities in the South. At the heart of Washington's philosophy was his desire to teach his students to view labor not only as practical, but also as beautiful and dignified, as well as to prepare them for the jobs that were readily available to them. Washington sought to prepare African American teachers for the classroom along with improving farming techniques for area farmers. One the most famous faculty members at the school was inventor and agricultural entrepreneur George Washington Carver, who introduced the concept of crop rotation to cotton farmers with depleted soils and who discovered numerous uses for the peanut and sweet potato. Carver later developed an agriculture extension program in Alabama, similar to the one that he had designed at Iowa State University, that was managed by Tuskegee graduate Thomas Monroe Campbell. Noted writers Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray also studied at Tuskegee.
Washington was married three times. He married his first wife, Fanny Smith, in 1882, and the couple had one daughter. Smith died in 1884, and Washington married Olivia Davidson, Tuskegee's first female principal, the following year, and they had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington. Olivia Davidson died in 1889, and in 1892 Washington married Margaret James Murray, an English teacher and later a principal as well. The pair adopted Murray's orphaned niece, Laura Murray.
As a result of his work as an educator and public speaker, Washington toured the nation, speaking on the state of race relations and civil rights. He also began to meet and solicit funds from wealthy benefactors such as Anna T. Jeanes, Henry Rogers, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald for Tuskegee Institute. Washington became an influential entrepreneur and fundraiser. He achieved greater notoriety with an address he gave at the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895. In the speech, which became known as "the Atlanta Compromise" or the "Atlanta Address," Washington challenged blacks and whites to adjust to post-emancipation realities. He stated that blacks and whites could work together as one hand while remaining socially separate, like fingers. Washington's statement of reconciliation pleased most white Americans at the time, as it did not push for civil and political equality. Increasingly, however, as racial violence and discrimination against blacks escalated at the turn of the century, other black leaders began to view the speech as a ready acceptance of second-class citizenship. Social, political, and economic conditions for blacks continued to deteriorate, and some blacks came to revile Washington. Others supported him for his advocacy of industrial education, which had been embraced earlier by civil rights advocate and abolitionist Frederick Douglass
Chief among Washington's critics was noted African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, who with other black leaders warned that Washington's philosophy was detrimental for the black community because they believed that whites would never allow African Americans to fully participate in American democracy. Although an advocate of industrial education, Washington was not totally against Du Bois's vision for liberal education for blacks, but he argued that they should concentrate on vocational skills as better suited for the work that was readily available for them. Dubois called Washington's political and financial network of black and white supporters the "Tuskegee Machine." The network included many black-operated newspapers, black intellectuals, black educators, black college graduates, white politicians, and white northern philanthropists who believed that the vocational model of education was the best method of educating blacks.
The rift between the two widened when Du Bois publicly expressed his discontent with Washington's approach to education and other race matters, particularly voting rights. When Alabama passed its 1901 Constitution, which disenfranchised most blacks, Washington, who could vote, protested little. In 1903, Du Bois published a book of essays that would become one of his signature works, The Souls of Black Folk, which featured a seething retort to Washington and those who followed his philosophy. This public verbal sparring between these two leading African American scholars further severed ties between Washington and Du Bois supporters and generally divided blacks. By giving more speeches similar to the Atlanta Compromise, Washington came to be known as the "Great Accommodator."
Washington was able to cultivate friendships with wealthy and powerful whites, however, including industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who donated funds to the school and kept the institute financially solvent. Other donations enabled Washington to open an agricultural school, and in 1896, Washington hired as its head George Washington Carver, who would make major contributions to southern agriculture and develop a classroom on wheels known as the Movable School to demonstrate improved farming methods to rural black farmers. His accomplishments were not just limited to the educational domain, however. He also founded the National Negro Business League in 1900, which provided consultation services to black business people. In the sphere of politics, he advised presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Taft on race relations in the United States and often on political appointments.
Booker T. Washington remained the most prominent spokesperson for the black community until his death on November 14, 1915, at age 59, likely from overwork and heart disease. Washington is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University, and his home, The Oaks, is part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic site and is open to the public. Washington's birthplace in southwest Virginia was declared a National Monument on April 5, 1956, the centennial of his birth.
Carroll, Rebecca. Uncle Tom or New Negro: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and Up From Slavery 100 Years Later. New York: Harlem Moon Titles, 2006.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Schroeder, Alan. Booker T. Washington. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1986.
———. Story of the Negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
———. Booker T. Washington's Own Story of His Life and Work. Cleveland: Fredonia Books, 2004.
F. Erik Brooks
Georgia Southern University
Published April 7, 2008
Last updated November 13, 2013