booker t washington, Booker Taliaferro Washington, tuskegee principal
AP Photo/Library of Congress
An 1894 photo of Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington, Advocate for Education and First Principal of the Tuskegee Institute

February 10, 2010
by Haley A. Lovett
Booker T. Washington spent his life making education available to African Americans in the post-Civil War South. He compromised with white Southern views to do so, making him a controversial figure, though undoubtedly one of the most influential African Americans of the time.

Booker T. Washington’s Early Days

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856; Booker T. Washington's exact birth date is unknown, although some sources put it on April 5. His mother, a cook, was enslaved on a tobacco farm owned by the Burroughs family.

According to his biography on the National Park Service Web site, in 1965, when the Emancipation Proclamation freed Washington and his family, they moved to West Virginia where he went to work in a salt mine. While holding his job at the mine, and later while doing domestic work, Booker T. Washington had his first experience with formal schooling.

At the age of 16, Washington wanted to attend the Hampton Institute in eastern Virginia to further his education. He used his savings to buy partial train tickets, and ended up walking hundreds of miles to finish his journey there. He worked as a janitor during school to pay for his tuition.

Washington’s Notable Accomplishments

After finishing school, Booker T. Washington became a teacher, working in his hometown and later at the Hampton Institute. When a principal position opened up at a new school for African American students in Tuskegee, Ala., Washington received a recommendation from Hampton Institute founder General Samuel Armstrong. In 1881 Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute.

Washington had a controversial approach to education, but one that enabled him to raise funds and support from whites. Because education for African Americans was illegal during the years of slavery, many whites in the south were still opposed to the idea of education for all, and often institutions of education for African Americans were the target of hate crimes and vandalism. Washington provided an industrial and agricultural education for his students, much like the education he received at the Hampton Institute, as a way of limiting the backlash against his school from whites.

Washington encouraged his students to be self-reliant and hardworking, and promoted social change through the individual, rather than equal rights through political or legal action. He claimed that African Americans could advance their social status through hard work, without ending segregation. This view was at the crux of the controversy surrounding Washington, and was highlighted in his speech at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, which would later be known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” or the “Atlanta Address.”

Other leaders in the black community were starkly opposed to Washington’s approach. According to PBS, one leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, felt that by allowing discriminatory practices to continue and not attempting to make change, African Americans would only perpetuate the cycle of oppression. 

The Rest of the Story

Even though Washington’s approach to education made him unpopular with civil rights advocates, it allowed him to gain the moral and financial support from Southern whites necessary to run the Tuskegee Institute. Washington also helped found the National Negro Business League. Booker T. Washington died on Nov. 14, 1915.

Toward the end of his life, it became apparent that Washington was not as firm a supporter of compromise and inaction as he once appeared to be. He openly criticized the film “The Birth of a Nation” as promoting racism, and spoke out against disenfranchisement—the revoking of the right to vote for African Americans. After his death it was discovered that Booker T. Washington made secret financial contributions to help fight discrimination and segregation.

The school that Washington founded, Tuskegee University, has become the only college campus in the country deemed a national historic site.

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