Rediscovering Americans - Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential African American leaders of the post Civil War era. Washington was born in Virginia in 1856 on the plantation of James Burroughs as a slave. After the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation he moved to West Virginia alongside his mother and siblings to live with his step father. Once free, Washington took time to teach himself to read and began attending school. Washington then worked to put himself through college, spending time in salt furnaces and coal mines. He used the money earned to attend Hampton Institute (later known as Hampton University, a historically black university) and the Wayland Seminary.

In 1881 Washington was recommended by Hampton Institute president Samuel C. Armstrong to become the first leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later known as the Tuskegee In and Tuskegee University), a teachers’ college based in Alabama. The following year Washington bought a former plantation and worked alongside students to build the school. A large home known as “The Oaks” was built on campus for Washington and he lived there until his death in 1915.

Washington used his influence to help improve the lives of African Americans throughout the country. He believed that educating and equipping black Americans to become productive members of society would lead to wider acceptance and participation by the general public, especially among white Americans. In 1891 he lobbied for the West Virginia Colored Institute (now known as West Virginia State University) and later spoke at its first commencement. Washington’s most notable speech was his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” where he called for African Americans to seek vocational education to help promote economic advancement. He also said that blacks should not focus on equality or integration for the time being, but earn their place in society. He also called for Northern whites to fund black education opportunities. Washington received pushback from some notable African American leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter who referred to Washington as “the Great Accommodator”. That being said, Washington did secretly contribute to legal challenges against segregation and disenfranchisement.

While working to promote education Washington was able to gain several notable white philanthropists including Henry Huttleston Rogers, Julius Rosenwald, and George Eastman. These philanthropists helped fund many of his endeavors and support schools like the Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute. In 1901 Washington published his autobiography, Up from Slavery, one of the most famous black autobiographies in American history. In 1906 he spoke at Carnegie Hall alongside Mark Twain, Robert Curtis Ogden, and Joseph Hodges Choate. He also helped found the Rosenwald fund alongside Julius Rosenwald to help build and support over 5,000 schools throughout the south. He also used his influence to form the National Negro Business League. During his lifetime Washington was able to meet with President McKinley and President T. Roosevelt. Washington died on November 14, 1915.

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