Who was Booker T. Washington?
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a prominent African American civil rights activist and educator who founded the Tuskegee University (originally called Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute) in Alabama in 1881. Born into slavery, Washington grew up desperately poor in the American South, specifically, West Virginia, but developed and early and active interest in learning. Slavery having been abolished following the Civil War, Washington was able to attend college in Hampton, Virginia, and distinguished himself for his work ethic and commitment to education.
As an educator himself, and founder of the Tuskegee school, Washington emphasized to his students the need for hard work and to work within the established system. Washington's was a very controversial perspective among civil rights leaders who argued for more assertive approaches to racial equality. Washington's admonition regarding the need to accept white domination until blacks had established themselves as an educated, independent people was met with derision by his detractors like W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington's belief that, assuming equality before the law and the freedom to earn a living the rest, mainly desegregation, would come in time did not endear him to many others among the African American community. That aside, he remains a respected figure in the history of the American civil rights movement for his own accomplishments, including the establishment of the university.