Booker T. Washington

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2447

Article abstract: Combining an optimistic outlook with a spirit of accommodation in race relations, Washington provided leadership and a program to American blacks during an era of segregation.

Early Life

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born April 5, 1856, on a farm near Hale’s Ford, Virginia. His mother, Jane Ferguson, was a slave and a cook for James Burroughs; his father was a white man whose identity is unknown. Washington had a brother John, four years his senior, also a mulatto, and a sister who died in infancy. When the family was emancipated, it settled in Malden, West Virginia, five miles from Charleston.

From 1865 to 1871, Booker worked in the local coal and salt mines, attending school between early morning and later afternoon stints of labor. For a year and a half, he was a houseboy for the wife of the mine owner; in this capacity, he learned demanding standards of performance, attention to detail, and the virtues of hard work, cleanliness, and thrift.

Having heard of a new school in eastern Virginia where blacks received vocational training, Washington entered Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in the fall of 1872. Founded by an idealistic Civil War general, Samuel C. Armstrong, the school reinforced the influences of his houseboy experience and pointed him toward his future. “At Hampton,” he later said, “I found the opportunities . . . to learn thrift, economy and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influences, and the spirit of self-help, that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me.” Armstrong, with his emphasis on industrial education for blacks and the virtues of hard work and self-discipline, was perhaps the major influence in molding young Washington.

During the four years after his graduation in 1875, he taught school at Malden, West Virginia, and briefly attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. In 1879, he was called to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to supervise instruction of Indian students whom Armstrong had recruited in the West. During his second year, he taught night classes for youths who worked for the institute during the day.

In 1881, he eagerly grasped the opportunity to start his own school at Tuskegee, Alabama. His model was Hampton, and he established in the Deep South an institution which expressed his by then mature social values. The Civil War and Reconstruction had brought freedom, citizenship, and suffrage to blacks, yet little had been done to prepare blacks to live as citizens, voters, and independent workers. What was needed, Washington believed, was to give blacks industrial education and moral training by which they could become economically self-sufficient and able to partake of the blessings of liberty and citizenship. The exercise of political rights and entrance into the professions could be deferred. “Let us give the black man so much skill and brains that he can cut oats like the white man; then he can compete with him,” he affirmed. The liberal arts were not to be neglected, but they were not foremost.

Now twenty-five years of age and in good health, a persuasive speaker, he stood tall, an energetic figure with striking features—gray eyes, full lips, broad nose, reddish hair, and brown skin. Throwing himself vigorously into his challenging responsibilities, he recruited students from the countryside and secured an abandoned plantation for a campus. In 1882, he married a childhood friend, Fannie N. Smith, who bore him a daughter and died in 1884. When the number of pupils grew to fifty, he employed another black teacher, Olivia A. Davidson, who became his second wife and gave birth to two sons. She died in 1889; a third marriage was to Margaret James Murray, “lady principal” at Tuskegee, who survived him.

Meager legislative appropriations and growing enrollments impelled Washington to solicit funds in the North and Midwest. Beginning in 1883, he secured assistance from the Slater and Peabody funds, the money from the first being used to build a carpenter shop and make other improvements. Fund-raising became a fixed part of his activities; in the course of time he was garnering $100,000 a year, gaining support from John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, and others. By the end of his career, Tuskegee Institute owned an endowment of nearly two million dollars.

Washington quickly emerged as a national spokesman for his race. In the summer of 1884, he was invited to address the annual meeting of the National Education Association in Madison, Wisconsin. He spoke on “the broad question of the relations of the races,” foretelling the views for which he became famous eleven years later. Meanwhile, the address won for him recognition among educators and helped his fund-raising efforts.

It was the address he delivered in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta that made him a national figure and the leading spokesman for black Americans. In this address, Washington rejected ideas of return to Africa or migration to the North. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” he exhorted. Blacks must begin at the bottom of life and not at the top, as Reconstruction policy had attempted; the leap from slavery to freedom had been too quick. Life at the bottom meant labor in agriculture, mechanics, commerce, and domestic service. Blacks must “learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.”

Seeking to allay Southern white apprehensions about the potential advance of blacks within the region, Washington gave an assurance, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Progress, he went on, is inevitable, and nearly eight million blacks—one third of the South—would help in marching forward.

Blacks and whites listened while he warned against agitation on questions of social equality. Not artificial forces but production for the world’s markets would bring blacks the full privileges of the law. “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.” Pledging the patient, sympathetic help of blacks, he looked forward to a time of material benefits to the South, followed by “a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities . . . and a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law.”

Washington’s Atlanta address came at a time of increasing discrimination against blacks. The United States Supreme Court in the Civil Rights cases had opened the door to segregation; a year after the Atlanta address, the Court gave positive sanction to separate-but-equal facilities for blacks. A movement to strip blacks of the right of suffrage had begun in Mississippi in 1890, and emboldened by Washington’s subordination of political privileges to economic opportunity, Southern white leaders pushed forward with segregation and disenfranchisement. Lynching of black men in the South, especially on the allegation of raping white women, was on the rise.

Pushing his idea of equal economic opportunity that he thought in time would blot out racial animosities, Washington advocated a policy of black accommodation to the oppressive climate. His policy won immediate favor with Southern whites, who welcomed the renunciation of political privilege and equality as well as the prospect of a harmonious section prospering through the labor of skilled, contented blacks. Northern whites, who had turned away from notions of intervention in the South, applauded Washington’s giant step down the road toward reunion and his vision of a Southern economy where Northern capital might profitably be invested. Blacks, in the main, were proud of the recognition Washington won and looked to the Tuskegee educator as their principal leader for the next score of years. Washington’s national influence grew quickly after the “Atlanta compromise.” He had already made friends with powerful figures in the North, philanthropists who were contributing to Tuskegee; he came to exert control over giving to black colleges, and his favor was necessary to secure aid.

With the accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency, Washington gained control of black appointments to federal office. His influence continued under William H. Taft, and Washington’s secretary claimed that “During the administrations of both President Roosevelt and Taft hardly an office of consequence was conferred upon a Negro without first consulting Mr. Washington.” He lost his influence in politics when Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born leader of a party with its base in the South, became president and ordered segregated facilities for blacks in federal service.

Besides philanthropy and politics, Washington exerted influence in the black press. Backed by most of the black press in the nation, Washington dispatched reams of releases publicizing Tuskegee and his ideas. He fed unsigned editorials to receptive editors and on occasion made financial contributions to black editors. He secretly purchased the New York Age, which he believed to be “the strongest and most widely circulated Negro paper in the country,” and after he sold it, continued to advise its editor.

Yet it must not be supposed that Washington fully acquiesced in segregation and disfranchisement. His Atlanta speech was ambiguous, and if, for example, he declared that “the agitation of questions of social quality is the extremest folly,” he did not intend racial inequality to be permanent. He believed in gradual evolutionary progress under which blacks, enjoying material prosperity, would gain complete equality in the South.

To this end and without fanfare, he exerted his influence to stem the tide of disenfranchisement. He wrote a public letter in 1895, urging the South Carolina convention to allow blacks to qualify for the vote by education, and he made similar attempts to allow a degree of black voting and strengthen black education in other Southern states.

He was less open and vocal in his opposition to segregation. Behind the scenes, he worked against the passage of laws segregating Pullman cars, though he himself was rarely accorded separate facilities. He also fought laws to segregate housing, usually in private letters and through other persons. Lynching, however, impelled him to be active; the burning alive of a Georgia black for alleged rape and murder elicited from him a letter appealing to both blacks and whites to maintain law and order. In later years, he continued to speak out against lynching and periodically compiled lists of lynchings in the United States which he cited in speeches and correspondence.

His public stance of accommodation, however, incurred criticism and opposition. The challenge sprang in part from a contrasting figure: a Northern-born scholar who was the first black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was W. E. B. Du Bois, historian and sociologist, who at first supported Washington’s work and toyed with the notion of teaching at Tuskegee.

Du Bois held a set of ideas that stood in contrast to those of Washington. He believed that Washington’s emphasis on industrial training was too narrow, his accommodation to segregation and disenfranchisement an acceptance of injustice, his protests too moderate, his faith in the white South’s cooperation with black progress misplaced. Blacks should acquire a broad education; the best minds, whom he called the Talented Tenth, should be prepared for leadership of the black race; caste distinctions found in segregation and disenfranchisement should be ended; blacks should not allow their faith to repose in Southern whites but feel free to migrate northward; and they should not rely heavily on self-help but seek external support. In keeping with this last idea, Du Bois helped organize a movement that in 1910 produced the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A biracial movement, heavily dependent upon Northern white support and leadership, the NAACP took up the fight for full legal and political rights for blacks, employing litigation as a principal weapon.

The NAACP presented a challenge which Washington met by stressing two alternatives. One was the National Negro Business League which he had founded in 1900, drawing together black business leaders from three hundred cities; the other was the Urban League, organized in 1911 to foster economic opportunities for blacks in cities. These activities strengthened and complemented his strategy for achieving equality for blacks.


Though he remained the preeminent leader of his race until his death on November 14, 1915, Washington saw his influence decline with the election of Wilson and the emergence of the NAACP. By 1915, his philosophy was becoming obsolete as the nation was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing, and blacks were migrating to Northern cities.

In many ways, Washington had caught the spirit of his age, with its stress on material advancement, faith in progress, self-help, and individualism. Living and working in the South, he probably necessarily accepted white-imposed restraints on black rights and favored white and black cooperation. Tuskegee Institute could not have existed under the administration of a militant black leader. For a generation of black Americans, Washington did much to inspire pride in race, point to a means of progress, and urge sharecroppers and tenants to become owners of farms and skilled workers.


Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903. Written by Washington’s leading critic, this book contains an early critique of the Tuskegee educator and his philosophy. It offers a useful contemporary perspective.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. The first volume of the best biography, based upon profound scholarship, this work is written in a clear style and with good judgment.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. The second and final volume of the prizewinning definitive life, this work fulfills the promise of the first volume.

Harlan, Louis R., et al., eds. The Booker T. Washington Papers. 13 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972-1984. These volumes bring together the voluminous papers of Washington, comprising his speeches, telegrams, letters, and miscellany. Edited with scholarly notes, the papers are invaluable for an understanding of the man and his activities.

Scott, Emmett, and Lyman Beecher Stowe. Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1916. Written by Washington’s secretary and a descendant of abolitionists, this book is valuable for its inside vantage point. Sympathetic in tone, it is nevertheless frank and revealing.

Spencer, Samuel R., Jr. Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Place in American Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1955. A short, reliable, and readable biography, with ample interpretation and balanced judgment.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1901. The author’s account of his early years, this work also contains a straightforward description of Tuskegee Institute. It has enjoyed a wide readership and stands as a classic.

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