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Booker T. Washington Biography

Madhavi Ghare Apr 20, 2019
One of the earliest leaders of the African-American community in the United States, Booker T. Washington was an author, educator and reformer who helped African-Americans in the south speak up against discrimination. Here is a short chronicle of his life.
A few words...
No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
- Booker T. Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915) was one of the most vocal advocates of the early African-American movement for equal rights and opportunities.
He was among the last of the African-American leaders who had been born in the slave era of American history, and as a freedman, went on to become a prominent personality in a highly discriminatory environment.
He was also among the relatively few African-Americans from the closing years of the 19th century, who, although disenfranchised, managed to obtain an education and achieve a position of importance, which garnered the attention of both liberal and conservative America and eventually recognition from the White House itself.
During his lifetime he built hundreds of schools for African-American children in the South, campaigned for donations and endowments from wealthy white Americans and wrote prolifically on racial segregation in the United States.
His books continue to be popular today and his ideas and philosophy is often credited as being an influence on the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s.

Early Life and Education

Booker T. Washington was born in Hale's Ford Virginia in 1856. His mother, Jane, was a slave and his father was a white man, a worker at a local plantation who did not stay with them and with whom Washington never had any real contact.
They used to live in a small cabin on the farm and times were hard, Washington wore crude homemade clothes and wooden-soled shoes. He worked on the plantation too, carrying sacks of corn on horses to the mill.
Once the Civil War ended and the slaves were granted their freedom, Washington and his mother moved to the town of Walden in West Virginia to live with his stepfather, Washington Ferguson, a free man who used to work in the salt mines.
Washington too, had to work at the mines, although his interest in books had already been kindled when he used to see children studying at the school on the farm. This was noticed by his mother who bought him a book of alphabets which he eagerly devoured.
Washington eventually obtained permission to attend school, but he had to work too, and often before and after school. At school he adopted the name of his stepfather, when the teacher was taking a roll-call and unlike them he had no last name.
It was about this time that he gained employment in the household of General Lewis Ruffner as a houseboy, and impressed his wife Mrs. Ruffner, a strict disciplinarian, with his dedication toward his job. She enrolled him in school where he was allowed to attend classes for a short time during the winter months.
Eventually, Washington joined the Hampton University in 1872, then known as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, where the school's headmaster General Samuel C. Armstrong, soon found in him a hardworking and intelligent young man and offered him a scholarship.
He also became his mentor and helped Washington cultivate values of freedom and education which would be his hallmark in later years. After graduating from Hampton University in 1875, Washington studied at the Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C for a short while.
It was in 1881 that General Armstrong received a request from the Alabama legislature to recommend a suitable principal for a school which was to be established for the uplift of the African-American children in need of practical education.
Armstrong recommended Washington, who was accepted and given the charge of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, in June 1881. The school was nonexistent, the land allotted contained only a single church in need of repair and Washington had with him $2000, approved by the government.

An Educator and Reformer

Booker T. Washington remained at the head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute all his life. Today the institute is the Tuskegee University, but during Washington's lifetime too, the institute boasted of 1500 students and a healthy $1.5 million in endowment funds.
All this was possible due to the constant care and nurturing of Washington and his passion for the education of the disenfranchised African-Americans all over the country. The students helped in the building of the school, after he bought a nearby plantation, and even raised their own livestock and crops to provide for the needs of the fledgling institution.
Over time Washington raised more funds to establish hundreds of smaller schools in rural parts of the southern United States. This was probably Washington's greatest contribution, he worked toward providing education and opportunities to the poorest of African-Americans, so they could be self-sufficient and wield some measure of economic power.
He made it compulsory for students to learn both scholarly texts and trade craft which would help them land jobs in the industrial towns, rather than languishing as farmhands and plantation workers. He gave several speeches at educational institutions, and is noted for being instrumental in the founding of the West Virginia State University, in 1891.

Political Philosophy

The Atlanta Compromise

The Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, was held in the year 1895. It was also a seminal year for Washington as he gave his famous Atlanta Address, to a crowd of white cotton businessmen and plantation owners.
This speech is considered one of the most historic in the history of the United States and its message to both African-Americans and white Americans to join together in racial harmony paved the way for what later came to be known as the Atlanta compromise.
Washington's speech was applauded by white southerners as he was careful not to cross the well-entrenched boundaries of racial segregation and by his acceptance of the Jim Crow Laws, governing southern states at that time.
In his speech he extolled the virtues of a hardworking life, asking his fellow African-Americans to emancipate themselves through work and education, not by violent revolt or demonstration against their white superiors.
His speech used the phrase Cast down your bucket where you are several times, as a passionate call to impoverished African-Americans all over the country, to strive for a life of dignity and economic productivity.
This historic speech led to the unwritten agreement among African Americans and white Americans in the South, called the Atlanta Compromise by one of Washington's most vocal opponents, W.E.B. Du Bois.
The Atlanta compromise stated that the African Americans would not go against the white populace by protesting, demanding equal status or voting rights, the whites would in turn offer them employment and education and grant them legal redress.
Washington was not against African-American submission to white supremacy, as he considered it a necessary social evil in the short run. His argument was that once African-Americans gained economic independence, by attaining education and proficiency in business, they would be accepted as equal citizens by their white counterparts, and granted full rights.
This was his answer to the Jim Crow laws, which were segregationist laws operating in most southern states at the time and did not allow for equal rights to African-Americans.
W.E.B. Du Bois, who organized his own African-American equality movement of dedicated intellectuals called The Talented Tenth and asked for nothing less than full enfranchisement in every aspect of social and political life for African-Americans, was initially supportive of the revolutionary speech by Washington.
But became disillusioned when he realized that Washington was indirectly in favor of segregation and did not want to antagonize the hard line white southerners.
Whatever be the argument, the fact remains that Booker T. Washington had raised his voice for Africa-American rights, in an era when discrimination was acceptable and even considered necessary and lynchings were a common occurrence. He was asked to speak at several colleges and introduced as professor and his list of contacts grew.

Wealthy Benefactors

Washington remained committed to his mission of education for African-Americans and to this end made some very powerful and wealthy friends, people who gave away substantial sums of money for the establishment of schools and other institutions which would cater to the needs of the poor African-American children throughout the country.
He was known to be close to Henry Rogers, one of the leaders of Standard Oil, the largest corporation in the world. Rogers was one of the richest men in America and after hearing one of Washington's brilliant speeches, became a lifelong admirer. He funded over 70 schools and gave generous endowments to the Tuskegee Institute and the Hampton Institute.
Another famous benefactor of Washington was Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears and Roebuck, who in collaboration with Washington established the Rosenwald Fund which in time set up some 5000 schools for African-Americans along with several hundred teachers homes. He was also on the board of the Tuskegee Institute as a lifetime appointee.

Invitation to the White House

Washington published his autobiography Up From Slavery in 1901 and it turned out a bestseller. The book documented his life, from the slave fields of Virginia, his struggle for education and his later rise to fame as an orator and activist for Africa-American rights in the South.
It generated considerable media coverage, which Washington used skillfully and resulted in a call from the White House, where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt. The President even visited the Tuskegee Institute in 1905 and Washington remained as an advisor to him and even to future president William Howard Taft.

Family Life

Washington married three times during his life, his first wife was his childhood sweetheart Fannie N. Smith, whom he married in 1882 and they had a daughter, Portia M. Washington. Fannie however died in 1884, leaving Washington heartbroken.
He married again in 1885, his bride was Olivia A. Davidson, who was educated at the Hampton Institute and came to work at the Tuskegee Institute when Washington was still trying to get it off the ground. The couple had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington.
Washington was not, however, blessed with marital happiness as Davidson too died in 1889. His third marriage was to Margaret James Murray, a graduate of Fisk University and whom Washington met during one of his lecture tours. She stayed with him till the end of his life.

Death and Legacy

The constant touring and lecturing took a toll on Washington's health and he collapsed on one of his tours to New York City. He died on November 14, 1915 and was buried on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute. He was 59 years old.
Booker T. Washington has been honored several times in the decades since his death, he became the first African-American to be honored with an image on a Famous Americans Series United States Postage stamp, issued in 1940.
In 1942 a Liberty Ship was named Booker T. Washington in his honor and several schools and institutes in the US bear his name. His house in Virginia was turned into the Booker T. Washington National Monument in 1956.

Books by Booker T. Washington

Washington wrote and published 5 books during his lifetime.
  • The Story of My Life and Work (1900)
  • Up From Slavery (1901)
  • The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (2 vol 1909)
  • My Larger Education (1911)
  • The Man Farthest Down (1912)
Booker T. Washington is remembered today as a pioneering leader in the early African-American Civil Rights Movement and his contribution toward the educational emancipation of African-Americans in the early years of the 20th century cannot be forgotten.