Recognized during the early years of the twentieth century as the principal, though controversial, spokesman for African Americans, Booker Taliaferro Washington also won fame for his well-known rags to riches autobiography, Up from Slavery. He was born a slave of a white father and a black mother on a Virginia plantation, and the Civil War occurred early in his life. At age nine, moving with his mother and stepfather to West Virginia, where his stepfather went to work in the salt mines, Washington developed a hunger for education. Mrs. Lewis Ruffner, the wife of the mine’s owner, encouraged and helped him enter the Hampton Institute of Virginia, an industrial school for African Americans and American Indians.
Washington graduated from Hampton in 1875, but his early career as a teacher ended abruptly when he was appointed in 1881 to organize and head the Tuskegee Normal School and Industrial Institute in Alabama. He spent the bulk of the rest of his life building Tuskegee through his philosophy of the dignity of hard work and thrift. He envisioned that African Americans would succeed in the postwar South through practical education and economic development. A master administrator and communicator, Washington attracted financial support, and within twenty years Tuskegee could boast a faculty of 125 and a student body that numbered more than a thousand.
Washington became a famous and controversial figure in 1895, when he delivered a much-reported speech at the Atlanta Exposition, sometimes referred to as the “Atlanta compromise” address. In his speech he extolled the value of African Americans and whites working together in the common cause of economically building the South. Perhaps the most famous quotation from the speech suggests that “we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” The speech, like all his writing, is full of anecdote and employs a visionary oratorical style; it brought his audience to its feet.
While many lauded him as a black Moses, some African Americans, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, believed that he demanded too little and...
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